Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Advocacy Night

I look forward to the time when Rick Timbs can finally retire—not that he isn't a lively speaker, and not that he doesn't have an important message, but because it will mean that we've finally solved the problem of inequitable education financing in NYS. I don't see that day coming soon.

Rick was featured at Advocacy Night in Auburn last night. I will try to parse his main themes as simply as possible.

The governor likes to say, "We spend more money per student than any state in the United States. We are decidedly in the middle of the pack in terms of results."

It's true! We do spend more money per student than any other state. In fact, there is a district in NYS that spends $92,000 per student per year! (Now imagine how that skews results for the rest of us.) Because the fact is, not only do we spend the most (we're number one!), but also we spend it the least equitably of any state in the Union (we're number fifty!) That's just a fact.

How often have you heard legislators or the governor say, "We're already giving poor school districts way more than we give wealthy districts"? Well, that's true, too. On average, poor districts in NYS get around 8 times more state aid than wealthy districts do. However, our wealthy districts are overall 14 times richer than poor districts.

On the whole, the governor does better than our legislators in ironing out this inequity. For example, in 2013-14, the governor's budget offered $297 more per poor kid and $8 more per rich kid (in additional aid per student). The legislature came back with $83 per poor kid and $220 per rich kid. (Well, to be fair, think about where those poor little rich kids live and who represents them.) After an unimaginable wrangling, the final budget gave $381 more to poor kids—and $228 more to rich kids.

Okay, that was just one year. Then in 2014-15, the governor offered $198 more per poor kid and $45 more per rich kid. The legislature came back with $173 per poor kid and $168 per rich kid. (They're all our kids, after all!) The compromise was $371 per poor kid and $212 per rich kid.

So the rich get richer in New York State. Meanwhile, Rick meets superintendents whose valedictorians can't get into SUNY Geneseo because their transcripts are too thin. When a rich district offers six languages and National Science Foundation projects, and a poor district is lucky to offer an AP course or two online, dollars begin to matter. The comptroller's latest report indicates that one in eight school districts in NYS are in "fiscal distress."

You may think that New York City schools are in worse shape than ours, but you would only be partly correct. Average wealth in NYS is calculated using both income and property value. By that calculation, New York City ranks 1.0, or average for the state. Most of our local districts are below average, with Ithaca and Lansing hovering around average. Newfield and Candor are significantly below average; on a scale of 1 to 10 where 1 is the poorest district in the state and 10 is the richest, Newfield and Candor are 2s.

Then there's the Gap Elimination Adjustment (GEA). Rick likes to say, "The state had a gap [between revenues and expenditures]. They wanted to eliminate it. So they adjusted something." The something they adjusted was the dollars they owed the school districts from the lawsuit resolved in 2007, the one that required the state to offer a "sound basic education" and to finance it appropriately. The state solved its budget woes on the backs of the districts, despite a court order requiring the state to pay districts a set amount. As Cathy Nolan told us one day in Barbara Lifton's office, "Hey, we didn't have the money!" Try that line the next time you're hauled into traffic court. See how it flies.

Our problem upstate is that the GEA was not applied equitably. The state took more money from those districts who were getting more money from the state. In other words, it took the most from the poorest districts and the least from the richest districts.

Although the state now has a surplus, it has not seen fit to apply that surplus to the GEA, instead adding back a bit at a time. The result is that school districts in NYS are owed $4.9 billion, and we have districts right around here that will have to raise their levies by anywhere from 3% to 15% to make up this year what they lost to the GEA. (Since there's a tax cap, of course, they are unlikely to raise their levies that high and instead will continue to cut personnel. The GEA is not what you'd call a "job creator.")

One interesting aside for those of us in the Finger Lakes: The current education finance formula does not take into account the relative poverty of people who live in areas with high-value property. That includes people who live near lakes, because lakeside property is often extremely high in value. Because the state considers both income and property values in assigning aid, districts that are property-rich and income-poor suffer even more than those that are just plain poor overall. Property wealth is trickily inequitable—the difference in property wealth per pupil in NYS is over $5 million!

That brings us to this year. The governor has said no ethics reform = no budget, and no education reform = no increase in state aid for the next two years. He will not release the governor's school district runs, which means districts have no place to start in building their budgets. I find it hard to imagine that the new assembly leadership will get its act together in time to debate the proposed reforms and release some numbers to the districts before the districts are required by law to release their budgets to the public. The governor's suggested $1.1 billion won't cover the GEA or reinstate foundation aid.

I bet you're wondering what became of those issues you voted on back in November. Well, the Division of Budget (part of the executive branch) is still sitting on regulations for the Smart Schools legislation, that exciting plan to add loads of technology to the classrooms of NYS. Rick suggests that they may have suddenly realized that the plan would lead to significant new debt. Maybe they'll get smart and sit on those regs forever. As for the plan to let districts fight over dollars for Pre-K, Rick has met superintendents who say, "Yes, we'd like to get that Pre-K money, but we've had to close two schools to make ends meet, so we have no place to put Pre-K."

When it comes to the GEA, there are some bills wandering around in committee to get rid of it. Of our local legislators, only Tom O'Mara is a sponsor of the bill the Central New York School Boards Association prefers. See S.2743, which is equivalent to A.2271. Jim Seward introduced a different GEA elimination bill in the Senate, but CNYSBA prefers having two identical bills to make passage easier. If we can get these PASSED by March (Ha!) and add another billion to the governor's proposal (double Ha!), we might be on the road to relieving some of our districts' fiscal distress.

The evening ended with a representative of the NYS PTA showing us how to tweet: "@NYSenate CNY schools & students critically need GEA abolished this year. Pass S.2743." "@NYS_AM CNY schools & students critically need GEA abolished this year. Pass A.2271." "@NYSA_Majority CNY schools & students critically need GEA abolished this year. Pass A.2271." (Did you know that the Assembly has separate Twitter accounts for majority and minority members? Doesn't that tell you something?) But hey, it can't hurt.

LATER: I got an update on the Smart Schools plan, which turns out to be far more complicated than I thought. Suffice to say, it has been designed so that in order to get the money, schools have so much hoop-jumping to do, including the floating of enormous loans, that I can guarantee no one will bother to apply. That won't stop certain people from pointing to it as a Plus for Our Schools. Cross my heart: No one will get ANY technology out of the plan you voted for. None.

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