Advocates say lack of state funding at core of school district struggles

Karen DeWitt
March 4, 2014

The deadline for the state budget is approaching, and education issues are taking center stage. On a day of massive rallies for universal pre-K and charter schools, other advocates say they’ve gathered evidence for a lawsuit challenging low school-funding levels.

The Alliance for Quality Education has been touring schools around the state to document what they say is erosion in districts in economically depressed areas.

AQE’s Billy Easton says they’ve found schools forced to choose between offering music or art, band or Spanish. In some schools, there are no guidance counselors, or librarians.

“These are serious resource deficiencies,” Easton said. “The state is not doing its job.”

The advocates say if New York lawmakers had followed an order from the state’s highest court, issued in 2006, schools would be getting an additional $5 to $6 billion a year.

Several superintendents attended the release of the report at the Assembly Education Committee conference room.

Schenectady Schools superintendent Larry Spring says his district, one of the poorest in the state, should be getting another $62 million in aid per year, if the court order were followed. He says at the current, lower, level of state funding, the schools district faces a $10 million dollar budget gap.

“We’re having to consider whether or not we can continue to offer  kindergarten,” Spring said.

Assembly Education Committee Chair Cathy Nolan agrees there is a “severe” need for more resources for the state’s financially stressed schools, but was not ready to endorse the amount of spending directed by the court order. She says she does support a plan to fund about half that amount, though.  Nolan and many of her colleagues have signed a letter seeking an extra $1.9 billion in school aid in the new budget.

“You keep pushing,” said Nolan. “That’s what we’re here to do.”

Governor Cuomo has said “more money” is not always the best answer.

Easton, with AQE, says the governor’s budget proposal to freeze property taxes and phase out a utility tax, worth a combined $500 million, could be scrapped in order to provide more money for needy school districts. And he says both houses of the legislature estimates there is $350 million to $400 million in the state budget than the governor has predicted, which could also be sent to schools.  Assemblywoman Nolan and other Assembly members at the meeting were non committal.

“I don’t want to comment about the property taxes,” Nolan said. “We have another committee for that.”

And she says the Assembly Ways and Means Committee will make the ultimate budget decisions.

The report comes at a time when other education issues are swirling at the Capitol. There’s a push, led by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, to fund universal pre-kindergarten, and Governor Cuomo has promised he’ll give any district that needs money for pre-K funding as soon as they can show a plan is ready to be implemented.

Major rallies are planned at the Capitol Tuesday to lobby for universal pre-K and to keep open Charter Schools as well as add new ones.

There are also concerns about implementation of the new federal Common Core learning standards.

David Sciarra is with the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, the group that successfully brought the lawsuit for more school funding.  He says the root of the growing concerns about Common Core, and the lack of pre-kindergarten are the same- New York lawmakers are not making the financial commitment needed for schools to function in the first place.

“The connection here is deep, it’s interrelated,” Sciarra said.

The Campaign for Fiscal Equity is considering going back to the legal system to try to force Governor Cuomo and the state legislature to obey the original court order.