From the New York Times (3/26/11):
To balance New York State’s budget, Gov. Andrew Cuomo wants to cut a record $1.5 billion from the $23 billion budget for grades K-12.
The cuts would scarcely affect wealthy districts that rely primarily on local taxes to support lavishly appointed schools. But they would be catastrophic for impoverished rural districts that have been starved of state aid for decades and are still reeling from cuts levied last year when David Paterson was governor. Already struggling to furnish even basic course offerings, the poorest districts would need to cannibalize themselves to keep the doors open and the lights on.
The fundamental inequity of the cuts, as currently proposed, can be seen in how they would affect two of the state’s school districts: Ilion in the economically depressed Mohawk Valley, and Syosset, a wealthy town in Long Island’s Nassau County.
CURRENT BUDGET 2010-2011: $25 MILLION
NUMBER OF STUDENTS: 1,600
CUOMO PROPOSED CUT: $1.1 MILLION
The system is one of the poorest in the state. More than a third of its 1,600 students are eligible for free or reduced-cost lunches, and that figure would no doubt be higher if some families whose children need free lunches to eat nutritiously were not too ashamed to apply for it.
Impoverished districts like Ilion, which has an eroding tax base and relies on the state for more than three-quarters of its budget, were supposed to fare better after a 2006 court ruling that ordered the state to give each district enough money to provide every child with a “sound basic education.”
Under a new formula created by the Legislature, some of the poorest districts were promised as much as an 80 percent increase. The increases were to be phased in over four years in steadily larger amounts. Ilion, which had been promised a 35 percent increase, got a modest boost in the first two years. But then the state ran into fiscal trouble; funding was kept flat in 2009 and cut in 2010. Like many other poor districts, Ilion retrenched. It laid off teachers and backed down from plans to expand its course offerings.
Thanks to an ambitious school building program carried out by the state, Ilion’s low-rise brick high school is in great shape and indistinguishable from similar buildings even in wealthier communities. The course offerings tell another story. The school offers only one foreign language, Spanish, and is unlikely to offer any others until and if the economic climate improves. As a result, a transfer student who was seeking a third year of French has had to take the course online.
The school offers only four of the possible 34 Advanced Placement courses, which allow students to earn college credit in high school. The Advanced Placement course in biology was particularly hard won: school officials said they had to “steal nickels here and there” to buy microscopes and other material necessary to run the course, which is certified and overseen by the College Board.
Under the Cuomo administration’s proposal, Ilion would be asked to absorb a new $1.1 million cut, on top of the $450,000 cut it took last year. That would not even come to a rounding error in the state’s richest districts. But for Ilion, whose budget is about $25 million, the new cut, combined with the $1.3 million the district is obligated to pay for raises, benefits and other costs, produces a deficit of about $2.4 million.
Mr. Cuomo has left the impression that school districts like Ilion could weather cuts by tightening their belts and winning pay freezes through negotiations with their employees. A pay freeze would save Ilion only $600,000, leaving a huge deficit of $1.8 million. The district could save money in the long term by getting teachers to contribute more to their health care costs. But that will not happen, if at all, until the current contract expires next year.
Moreover, pension expenses, which will cost the district more than $1 million this year — and about 2.5 percent more next year — are locked in by the State Constitution, which makes it illegal to reduce benefits for workers already enrolled in the system. Proposals that would create less expensive pension plans for future employees will take decades to produce significant savings.
Ilion is seeking to save money by merging with three districts nearby. But the results of a merger feasibility study will not be known until the fall. The only short-term way for Ilion to cut costs is to lay off teachers while savaging academic programs that are already inadequate.
CURRENT BUDGET 2010-2011: $188 MILLION
NUMBER OF STUDENTS: 6,600
CUOMO PROPOSED CUT: $1.4 MILLION
Meanwhile, prospects remain bright in affluent districts like Syosset in Nassau County, which has a rich local tax base and, according to the most recently available statistics, gets only about 12.6 percent of its budget from the state. The district’s course catalog runs more than 130 pages. It offers students Spanish, French, Italian, Japanese, Russian, Latin, American Sign Language and Mandarin Chinese. College-bound students, which is to say, just about everyone at the high school, have access to a dazzling array of almost 30 Advancement Placement classes that include different levels of calculus, physics, economics, environmental science, music theory and studio art.
Signs outside the low-rise building that houses the high school proudly proclaim that the United States Department of Education has cited Syosset High for the excellence of its academic programs and that the system’s arts education program was ranked first in the nation in 2002. Whereas most Ilion students end up at local community colleges, Syosset launched nearly all of its graduating seniors into four-year colleges last year. A significant number of them enrolled in schools like Harvard, Yale, Columbia and Cornell.
The district could easily raise enough through local taxes to support its entire $188 million budget. Despite its lavish programs and a budget more than seven times that of Ilion, Syosset would get roughly the same cut under the Cuomo plan, about $1.4 million.
Districts like Syosset also benefit from loopholes in the state funding formula that drive hundreds of millions of dollars each year toward wealthy and moderate-income school systems that could do without it.
The most obvious of these is the so-called high-tax aid provision that reimburses wealthy and moderate-income districts that tax themselves heavily to fund high-end school programs. By state estimates, this provision inflates the school budget by about $200 million per year. Another provision that deliberately underestimates the poverty levels in the poorest districts has cost those districts millions in aid. Yet another provision that allows districts in wealthy areas to have a larger portion of basic education funding covered by the state siphons off even more money.
No one should begrudge wealthy districts like Syosset their wonderful course offerings. But the state must do more to improve and better fund public schooling in economically depressed parts of upstate New York.
Governor Cuomo has made revitalizing these areas a priority. But the region stands little chance of attracting high-skill jobs if its schools are allowed to deteriorate. Instead of swallowing the Cuomo proposal whole, the Legislature should fashion a fair system that cuts out the givebacks to the wealthy while driving more money toward the starving, poorer districts that so desperately need it. By helping those districts survive tough times, the state is also looking out for its own best interest.