Capital Region school districts would see core state funding rise as little as 0.25 percent and as much as 2.3 percent under Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposed budget.
While education analysts and district officials widely expect the Legislature to ultimately approve school funding higher than the governor’s proposal, for some districts, the governor’s proposal foreshadows a challenging budget cycle.
“I admit it’s early in the budget process, but it’s a very disappointing place for us to start,” said Niskayuna Superintendent Cosimo Tangorra Jr., whose district would see a 0.3 percent increase in the state’s core education funding formula under the governor’s proposal. “We have an $85 million budget; $35,000 isn’t going to go very far.”
Tangorra said it’s still early in the budget season and that he hopes lawmakers will work to boost final state aid numbers beyond the governor’s proposal.
“If things don’t improve dramatically in terms of what we are able to generate on state aid and stay within the tax levy limit, this is not good,” he said.
Out of 37 Capital Region districts, 16 receive foundation aid increases of less than 1 percent in Cuomo's budget; 15 would see increases of between 1 percent and 2 percent; and six districts would get increases over 2 percent.
With a 2.25 percent foundation aid increase for Schenectady schools in the governor’s proposal – nearly $2.2 million – Superintendent Larry Spring said he thinks this year’s budget is shaping up well for Schenectady.
District officials assumed about a 2 percent increase in foundation aid last week when they presented early budget estimates to the school board. Those estimates projected about a $1 million gap when factoring in growing staff costs, the smallest gap the district projected at this stage of the budget process during Spring’s tenure. Spring said at this early stage in the budget season he was hopeful the district would be able to make a larger investment in new programs and cut taxes more than last year, when the district added about $2 million in new student services and lowered the local tax levy by another $1 million.
“I feel pretty optimistic that we will be able to add services this year, and we will also be able to reduce the tax levy again,” Spring said. “How much we will be able to add and how much we will be able to cut [taxes]? I don’t know.”
More details of the governor's proposal to require districts to spend more money on its neediest schools also emerged Wednesday. The proposal, which this year would apply to only a handful of Capital Region districts, would mandate districts spend as much as 75 percent of their foundation aid increase on lifting per-pupil spending levels in their highest-need schools to above the district average.
The new funding policy, which Cuomo on Tuesday called an “education equity formula,” would create a way that “high-need” schools relative to a district average would be identified in each district. If those schools are funded below the district’s average per-pupil funding level, districts would be required to allocate part of their new foundation aid to bring funding levels in those schools above the district average.
Cuomo's proposed formula goes too far in dictating how districts should spend their money, school administrators and education analysts said. They also cautioned that the approach may not effectively account for circumstances driving school-level funding differences, such as different personnel costs and specialized programs located at some schools and not others.
“A state policy is likely to be a blunt instrument that doesn’t take into account unique circumstances,” said Bob Lowry, who analyzes legislation for the State Council of School Superintendents.
While Spring may see a positive budget picture taking shape for Schenectady schools, he was scathing in his criticism of the governor’s proposed school-level spending mandate.
Spring said all of the schools in Schenectady should be considered high need and that they are funded well under the level they would be at if the district received all of its foundation aid.
“On a grand scale across the state, every single one of our schools is a high-need school,” Spring said. “Woodlawn [Elementary] is only a lower-need school when you compare it to MLK [Elementary]. Woodlawn has intense need in any other school district.”