SCHENECTADY -- As state lawmakers set out on a review to possibly update the state’s core school funding formula, Schenectady schools Superintendent Larry Spring said he thinks lawmakers should first pay up.
Senate Democrats this week launched the first of a series of public forums on potential changes to the state’s Foundation Aid formula, which is used to determine what level of funding districts need to provide a basic education to its students.
Lawmakers, education experts and others have pointed to outdated poverty measures and other elements of the formula they say is in need of revision. But others have pointed to the fact that the state still remains around $4 billion short of funding schools at the level currently spelled out by the formula.
The Schenectady City School District, like many other high-poverty districts around the state, receives less state funding than the current formula says it needs to meet its students' needs. This year the district will receive around 70 percent of the funding outlined under the formula – nearly $40 million in annual funding.
“Before we throw [the current formula] away, before we say this isn’t working, I think we should ensure we try it,” Spring said in comments at the start of a Wednesday night school board meeting. “We should be funding the existing formula before we look to depart from it too terribly much … I do not believe if the state at large decides to retool Foundation Aid, they will do it in a way that benefits the districts that have been getting the short end of the stick.”
Spring’s concerns were echoed by education advocates at the first public forum on the subject held in Yonkers on Wednesday, according to Bob Lowry, of the New York State Council of School Superintendents.
The Alliance for Quality Education, a statewide education advocacy group, for instance, has argued that the discussion of what to do about the funding formula obscures the fact that it has never been adhered to with fidelity. As a result, the group asserts, the districts that are most poorly funded predominantly serve low-income and minority students.
“The state’s unwillingness to use the Foundation Aid formula to provide the funding necessary has led to educational racism,” the group wrote in a report released Wednesday ahead of the public forums. “New York state, a state that wants to be recognized as progressive and caring for its people, has been denying the full worth of our black and brown students by failing to use the Foundation Aid formula.”
But some lawmakers think Schenectady would benefit from an update to the formula if it more accurately captured the level of poverty and related challenges within the community. One measure of poverty in the formula is based on the 2000 Census; another measure counts the number of students in a district eligible for free and reduced price lunch, but some districts, like Schenectady, have opted into districtwide free lunch programs.
“My guess would be that any change in the formula might also favor Schenectady,” said Assemblyman Phil Steck, D-Colonie, who represents part of the city school district. “The change in the formula should be about more realistically calculating poverty levels, and I don’t see changing the formula likely to hurt Schenectady in that regard.”
Across the Capital Region and state, the level of funding districts receive as a share of the Foundation Aid formula varies widely: Niskayuna schools received about 60 percent of what the formula calls for, while Saratoga Springs schools received 115 percent of what the formula calls for. Mohonasen received about 75 percent of what the formula calls for, while Galway schools received over 130 percent of what the formula calls for.
Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara, D-Rotterdam, said that divergence in funding under the formula is evidence of the need to remake it.
“Something’s not right, something doesn’t add up,” he said. “If this formula’s working, why are we seeing numbers like this?”
Santabarbara said he hopes changes to the formula could help squeeze some of the political horse-trading out of the annual process of allocating money to school districts, which never fully adheres to the Foundation Aid formula but is driven rather by political negotiations between lawmakers and the governor.
Republican Sen. Jim Tedisco, of Glenville, also said he was open to changing how the formula works, but said any changes must ensure that Capital Region schools received their “fair share” of funding. He also called for districts to have greater autonomy over how they can spend the funds.