A line of people standing in a conference room in front of a map on the wall

Sen. Jen Metzger, Ellenville Superintendent Lisa Wiles, Sen. Robert Jackson and Deputy Superintendent Angela Urbina Medina at a press conference Feb. 21. 

‘A storm is coming’: NY education advocates discuss funding needs

ELLENVILLE, NY — Before Robert Jackson was a senator, he was a parent. 

As a community school board president in New York City, Jackson and the Campaign for Fiscal Equity filed a lawsuit against the state of New York on the basis of not providing its students a “sound and basic education.” It took 13 years for the lawsuit to come to a close—during which time Jackson walked 150 miles to Albany to raise support—with a ruling in the campaign’s favor, a $7 billion bonus in school funding over four years and the creation of the Foundation Aid Formula. 

That formula promised $5.5 billion to schools across the state, calculating funding by district based on the cost of education, student need and how much local taxes could cover. (For a primer on Foundation Aid, see 
www.bit.ly/TRReducation).

That $5.5 billion was never paid in full, and now high-need school districts across the state say they need it.

Sen. Jackson, representatives from the Alliance for a Quality Education New York (AQENY), Sen. Jen Metzger and Ellenville School District representatives met at the Ellenville school on February 21 as part of a statewide “fact-finding” tour to document school needs and funding inequities across the state. The tour comes after Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a $338 million increase in Foundation Aid, rather than an increase of $1.66 billion and full phase-in of the $4.1 billion still owed that the New York Board of Regents and the alliance are calling for.
 
“It’s in the law that [the state] is supposed to be providing an additional $4.1 billion in funding to schools,” said Billy Easton, the executive director of the AQENY. “That’s not even total funding… these are your basic costs to run programs in a school district and all over the state, we see that there’s a tremendous shortage of funds.”

Sen. Metzger, who is newly elected to represent the 42nd district that includes Sullivan County, said more than $118 million is owed to her district, in schools from Fallsburg to Eldred to Roscoe to Walton. She was at the tour on Thursday to say that she is “fully behind” those gathered in seeking more funding for those schools. “It’s not just a constitutional responsibility that the state has, it’s a moral responsibility,” she said. 

At Ellenville, said Superintendent Lisa Wiles, the district has been making do with an ever-tightening budget, dealing with cuts beginning in 2008, when the state reduced funding to schools in order to close its own budget deficits. Since then, Wiles said, her district—in which 70% of elementary students meet the poverty index—has been making do with less. 

“We’re struggling. We need more support for our students. We have three libraries and only two librarians,” she said, adding that the district also has no social workers and not enough mental-health or special-needs services. “Our kids come through once, they come through kindergarten once, first grade once, second grade once, and if they miss the window with the resources… you can’t make it up.”

A statewide survey of school superintendents, conducted by the Council of School Superintendents, found that districts across the state are having trouble keeping up with mental-health needs. “Asked to look ahead three years or so, only 24% [of superintendents] expressed optimism about their district’s financial prospects… 7% said their districts cannot provide adequate services now,” the report read. Fifty-six percent of superintendents identified mental health resources as one of their top three funding priorities.

Though Ellenville is the only, and closest, district that the fact-finding tour will visit, other rural schools are not immune to the same funding challenges, Wiles mentioned. Earlier this year, a report showed that the Fallsburg and Livingston Manor school districts have students among the most impoverished in upstate New York. 

Education policy analyzers say that the Foundation Aid Formula—though it’s only one pot of funding among many—will work to better fund those schools, if it is fully utilized.

Tax caps, which many districts have in place because their taxpayers cannot afford to pay more than they already are, along with nominal state funding and mandates that come with no money, are making for an impending New York education conundrum, Wiles said. 

“We cannot maintain a property tax cap of 1.6% and have a nominal increase in Foundation Aid and maintain what we have,” Wiles said, adding that reworking the budget at this point is like “rearranging the deck furniture on the Titanic.”

When asked if her district had hit a breaking point, she responded, “The storm is coming. For some schools across the state, the storm has hit.”

 

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