Realistic steps to fair, sustainable school funding

It is long past the time for New York to have a realistic conversation over equitable school funding. We need to get past the Band-Aids, “temporary” corrections and political gimmicks, past and present, and move toward a simpler, more fair and sustainable way of paying for education, which should be one of our government’s highest priorities.

Equitable funding can’t just mean more money in state aid, although money is a big part of it. After all, a state that has just allegedly found enough of a surplus to offer tax relief programs can’t begin promising billions of dollars on top of that. Some sort of redistribution of existing programs must happen.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposed 2014-15 budget includes state aid pledges to some school districts that don’t even cover increased payments into the state retirement system. In others, such as Tupper Lake, that’s all it covers. The governor would increase the Tupper Lake Central School District’s state aid by $154,826 for the 2014-15 school year over the current one; however, the state is hiking the district’s pension fund contribution by $154,027, Superintendent Seth McGowan told us. The state giveth, and the state taketh away, leaving $799 to cover all other cost increases – and there are plenty of those.

Keep in mind that local officials have absolutely no control over pension contributions. It’s an unfunded mandate from the state, and it’s not the only one. Another, indirect one is the faculty training necessary to properly teach students under the new Common Core State Standards. It’s hard to estimate what that will be, but it will be substantial.

The Tupper Lake district has already gutted its faculty in past years and now offers its students less than it used to: fewer options for courses and activities, less library support, bigger classes (and, therefore, less individual attention) and less academic intervention. That’s not trimming fat; it’s muscle and bone. Mr. McGowan said he hopes he doesn’t have to cut any more this year, although he said he may have to leave some positions open after people retire.

Meanwhile, in neighboring Saranac Lake, Superintendent Diane Fox recently did what all administrators dread; she told a bunch of teachers they may (or may not) have to be let go this year – this in a district that has already eliminated dozens of positions and closed two schools in the last five years.

Many other districts statewide are taking painful steps like cutting teachers, raising taxes and/or depleting fund balances just to pay required bills. This is partly a natural process of right-sizing districts with fewer students, but it’s largely because state leaders changed the rules of the school funding game, balancing their own budget on the backs of local governments.

This situation is why, less than a month after unveiling a 2014-15 budget that spends $21.88 billion on education, New York state was sued – again – for not funding its schools fairly. It’s lunacy to say New York’s school districts don’t need additional aid when cutting positions, class offerings and closing school buildings goes against the very grain of the 2003 Campaign for Fiscal Equity ruling.

Equally crazy, however, is giving an inefficient system a blank check. The popular all-or-nothing arguments over school funding do us no good. A middle ground must be found that allows schools to adequately educate children while not raising taxes so much that no business or taxpayer can afford to live in New York.

A good place to start is to end the Gap Elimination Adjustment.

The next step is to follow former Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s foundation aid formula. Spitzer’s solution to another Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit decision was to create foundation aid, a system that takes into account the relative wealth of students in a school district, the property wealth of a school district and other factors like the number of special education students, English language learners and students who receive free and reduced lunch, and sets an aid number that should, ideally, be equitable. Districts that can afford to raise more through local tax dollars should, in theory, receive less state aid.

Spitzer also acknowledged aid shortcomings for many districts and realized that making aid equitable would cost too much to do in one year, so his formula included a series of increases that would eventually make state aid equitable.

Not only did the incremental increases end with the 2008-09 recession, but the state initiated the Gap Elimination Adjustment that took aid from all schools in order to help balance the state budget. Those changes were made under Gov. David Paterson, who inherited a state budget that needed severe cuts. We don’t necessarily blame him, but now those knife strokes have to be patched and healed.

Following Spitzer’s plan, or coming up with a revised foundation aid formula, seems necessary.

That doesn’t mean the state should simply add that money to its budget. There are various “save harmless” factors that, by and large, benefit more wealthy school districts. Save-harmless provisions keep the state from reducing a district’s state aid from one year to the next, even if that district has lost students, cut costs or gained wealth.

A recent analysis by Richard Timbs to the Schoharie County School Boards Association shows 151 school districts statewide are considered overfunded, according to the foundation aid formula, at a cost of $130,300,724. Redistributing that money to the 525 underfunded school districts would be another good step for the state to take.

Ending save-harmless provisions must be coupled with changes to the 2 percent tax cap because there is simply no way those 151 districts can receive less state aid, raise the money they need and still stay under the tax cap. A common-sense tweak may be to cap a tax increase at 2 percent or the rate of inflation, whichever is higher – rather than whichever is lower. Voters can still, if they are willing, exceed the tax cap.

Such changes probably won’t solve the entire problem, but they would be steps in the right direction – toward simplicity, fairness, sustainability and following the constitutional requirement to fund schools adequately. After that, we can try to catch bigger, more evasive fish, such as administrator pay, pension costs and unfunded state mandates.