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Changes in school-aid formula spread money more widely

New York State's main vehicle for distributing money

New York State's main vehicle for distributing money to public schools -- a formula known as foundation aid -- has gained acceptance among Long Island educators who used to complain that the approach leaned too much toward funding New York City schools. May 2, 2017 Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

Perfect, no.

Still, the state’s main vehicle for distributing money to public schools — a formula known as foundation aid — has gained qualified acceptance among Long Island educators who used to complain that the approach leaned too much toward funding of New York City’s system.

School superintendents, financial specialists and others said the formula, now in its 10th year of use, at least holds the advantage of being familiar.

And while it once was advertised as a mechanism for providing more money to systems that have impoverished students, the formula currently spreads the cash around. For individual districts, that serves to hold down property taxes, which rank among the nation’s highest.

This spring, Albany lawmakers tweaked the foundation formula for the umpteenth time as they struggled to adopt a $163 billion state budget that came in after the statutory April 1 deadline. Foundation aid accounted for $17 billion, nearly 70 percent of assistance to public schools.

Guaranteed minimum aid

One major change in the formula guarantees every school district an aid increase of at least 2.74 percent for the 2017-18 school year, regardless of a district’s residential and commercial property wealth.

The impact will be felt throughout Nassau and Suffolk counties, with 76 of the Island’s 124 districts receiving that minimum increase.

Poorer districts, such as Hempstead and William Floyd, will get a little bit more, and so will some districts that are relatively well-off, such as Hewlett-Woodmere and Port Washington.

The 2.74 percent raises will go to dozens of middle-class districts, such as Franklin Square, Levittown, West Babylon and Islip, where taxable wealth is near the state average or sometimes a bit below.

The same payments also will go to districts in the top financial bracket, such as Cold Spring Harbor, Locust Valley and Westhampton Beach, where taxable wealth is three or four times the state average.

So, it is evident that the system doesn’t do much to lessen economic inequalities among districts. On the other hand, foundation aid, combined with money from other state formulas, will boost total funding for Island schools by $195 million, or 4.1 percent.

That’s well above inflation.

Julie Lutz, chief operating officer for Eastern Suffolk BOCES, and most of the region’s school leaders have concluded that the formula works — to a certain extent.

“To me, the fact that it’s complex, and that it doesn’t meet the needs of everybody equally, doesn’t minimize the fact that it provides some predictability,” said Lutz, whose office provides regional financial analysis. “Do I think it needs to be overhauled? Yes.”

“The premise is solid,” added Joseph Famularo, superintendent of Bellmore schools and president of the Nassau County Council of School Superintendents. “It gives you some sustainability and predictability.”

Foundation aid was launched in 2007 on a premise that seemed progressive.

The state, according to this premise, was to determine how much spending per-pupil would be needed to run successful schools — that is, schools where students demonstrate proficiency on state exams. Then, the state would provide extra funding to help struggling districts meet that level, with much of the money targeted toward students who were impoverished or spoke limited English.

The plan was developed largely in response to the landmark state court ruling and related legal actions in the Campaign for Fiscal Equity’s lawsuit against the state, which ultimately found that New York City schools needed an additional $2 billion in phased-in assistance to meet basic constitutional requirements. Other districts were to be helped as well.

Politics in Albany, however, assured that new money would not be distributed strictly according to financial need.

Legal floors were quickly written into the formula language to provide districts with at least as much money as they had received in years past. Legal ceilings were added to prevent any drastic shift in funding to the poorest districts from the richest.

Inequities still exist

David Friedfel, director of state studies for the Citizens Budget Commission, a nonpartisan watchdog group, concluded in a report issued last month that the latest revisions to the foundation formula left intact “an inequitable pattern of shortchanging poorer school districts and rewarding wealthier ones.”

One district deemed shortchanged is Wyandanch, where 91 percent of students are economically disadvantaged and where taxable wealth is one-third the state average. Friedfel calculated that Wyandanch would have received an extra $20 million in aid had the foundation formula been applied to districts as originally envisioned.

“We never get our fair share,” said Mary Jones, the district’s superintendent.

Jones added that lack of funding has so far prevented Wyandanch from building new classrooms to accommodate a growing number of immigrant students from El Salvador and Honduras. As a result, she said, space is running short and 48 children are on a waiting list for preschool classes.

Friedfel’s report also singled out a formula change pushed through last month by state legislators from the Rochester area. The adjustment created a special funding tier for the middle-class suburban district of Brighton that meant an extra $749,000 in aid for 2017-18 was distributed there.

Timothy Kremer, executive director of the New York State School Boards Association, was asked about the Brighton amendment during a recent interview on WCNY-FM, an upstate public radio station.

Kremer said Brighton had been chronically underfunded. He conceded, however, that politically driven amendments of the sort benefitting one suburb were not the most advisable way to distribute state education money.

Kremer compared foundation aid to an aging car that is patched up year after year until it is barely recognizable as the original vehicle.

“One of the most common things I hear from people is, ‘I don’t understand why that district got more money than we did,’ ” Kremer told Newsday.

Some finance experts said formula adjustments are inevitable and even helpful in achieving the political consensus needed to pass budgets.

“In a perfect world, a foundation-aid formula would be allowed to run as intended, and that means it would help the neediest districts the most,” said Michael Borges, executive director of the New York Association of School Business Officials.

“But the distribution of school aid is a political process, so it should be no surprise that the Legislature makes tweaks and changes to achieve a political purpose,” he said.

Borges offered his own analogy, comparing foundation aid with Social Security payments.

“You get Social Security whether you’re poor or wealthy,” he said, “and if you pay something into the system, you’re entitled to get something out of it.”

Staff writers Sarah Armaghan, John Asbury, Rachelle Blidner, Denise M. Bonilla, Robert Brodsky, Khristopher J. Brooks, Sophia Chang, Christine Chung, Jesse Coburn, Stefanie Dazio, Emily C. Dooley, Zachary R. Dowdy, Michael R. Ebert, Scott Eidler, Candice Ferrette, Deon J. Hampton, Lisa Irizarry, Bart Jones, Patricia Kitchen, Carl MacGowan, Deborah S. Morris, David Olson, Ted Phillips, Carol Polsky, Jean-Paul Salamanca, Nicholas Spangler, Víctor Manuel Ramos, David M. Schwartz, Joie Tyrrell and freelance writers Kay Blough and Jim Merritt compiled and wrote the information in the zoned editions of the School Voters Guide.

In districts where candidates are competing for seats, information on backgrounds and issues is offered to help voters make decisions. Information for unopposed candidates is not provided. Background information provided by the candidates is not independently verified.

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