Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Action needed as NYS budget approval nears

Last week (March 20) Dr. Rick Timbs, the Executive Director of the Statewide School Finance Consortium, and I were guests on The Capitol PressRoom with correspondent Susan Arbetter. (Click here link to listen to the program) [Note: interview begins approx. 23 minutes into recording]

Dr. Timbs and I were invited to react to several factors proposed by state leaders that impact funding for local education, including state aid, the Gap Elimination Adjustment (GEA), charter schools and a property tax “freeze” as the clock ticks down, and the governor and legislators continue to negotiate a deal on the state’s budget.


Legislative budget proposals

This month, both houses of the Legislature presented separate budget bills that will be amended before a state budget is finalized on April 1. Each plan has its merits—and its flaws. Both proposals include more funding for education than the governor’s executive budget, which is heartening. 

The Assembly’s bill calls for an increase in Foundation Aid—this is basic operating aid for schools that has essentially decreased or remained flat for the past several years, even as operational costs have continued to soar. The Senate’s budget proposal offers no additional Foundation Aid; it does, however, restore more GEA funding than what the governor and the Assembly have proposed—and the Senate plan promises to phase out the GEA entirely in two years.

School leaders across the state, including me, have been pleading with state leaders to end the GEA, which has systematically been diminishing our ability to provide a high-quality education to all New York students—regardless of zip code. Now that state’s economy is on the upswing and Governor Cuomo has declared the state has a surplus, that funding should rightfully be returned to the schools, which have helped shouldered the brunt of the state’s economic crisis during the past four years. (Read my February blog for an explanation of the effects the GEA on Watervliet schools, or download WCSD's GEA infographic)


Major concerns persist

Still neither the Assembly’s nor the Senate’s plans appropriately address the dire and imminent fiscal challenges our school district faces; in fact, the Senate’s proposal contains some troubling recommendations, including an increase in funding to charter schools and a permanent property tax freeze.

I take issue with the Senate’s resolution that would increase funding to charter schools. Some may wonder why a proponent of education would be opposed to this. Simply put, like the GEA, charter schools siphon much-needed funding away from our public schools; and yet, charters are not held to the same level of accountability as public school districts. 

Others may question why this matters, since there are no charter schools within the City of Watervliet. While that is true, several charters exist in our neighboring cities of Albany and Troy, and by law, parents may apply to send their children to a charter school, if one is located within a specific distance of their resident school district. When a Watervliet parent enrolls a child in a charter school, the district must pay “tuition” to the charter. At present, our district pays tuition of $9,400 per student. This year 38 students are enrolled in charter schools, which results in nearly $360,000 in aid being diverted from our district directly to those other schools.

I also am deeply concerned about the devastating consequences that would result from a tax cap freeze, proposed in one form or other by the governor and the Senate, and which the Senate wants to make permanent. Dr. Timbs, a leading expert on school finance, predicts that a property tax freeze will only benefit more affluent communities in the state, and continue to shortchange the low-wealth, high-needs schools like Watervliet. (Read more about how the NYS Senate Budget Resolution will harm children)

During our Capitol PressRoom appearance, Dr. Timbs hit on an important point. He said that state officials have failed to live up to their “constitutional obligation to provide an adequate education for New York's students.”


With clock ticking ... Time is of the essence

The disparity between small city high-needs school districts and wealthier, low-to-average-needs schools is significant. As this gap widens, we are able to offer fewer programs and less opportunities for our students.

If this alarms you—TAKE ACTION NOW before the state adopts it budget! Call, email or Tweet our elected officials! Post messages on your FaceBook page to share with friends. We must do whatever it takes to offer our students the education they deserve!