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LI children in poverty put strain on school resources, report says

Kindergarten teachers Jenn Chernis, left, and Christie Clay

Kindergarten teachers Jenn Chernis, left, and Christie Clay work with their class at East Moriches Elementary School in East Moriches on Thursday, Feb. 25, 2016. Credit: Randee Daddona

A sharp rise in poverty among children and youth on Long Island appears to be straining finances in many of the region’s schools, according to a report issued Monday by the New York State Council of School Superintendents.

The report, “Something Has to Give,” found that poverty rates among children and youth jumped 53.2 percent in Nassau and Suffolk counties from 2007 to 2014, while the rise statewide over that time span was 11.4 percent. The council’s analysis was based on U.S. Census data and used the latest figures available.

In 2007, the poverty figure for children from birth through age 17 was 6.1 percent for the Island and 19.6 percent for the state, according to the report. By 2014, those figures had risen to 9.9 percent on the Island and 22.9 percent statewide.

The national poverty threshold, set by the federal government, does not factor in regional cost differences. In 2014, it was about $24,000 a year for a family of four.

The increase in the percentage of English-language learners on the Island also outstripped the rise statewide, reflecting the effect of more immigrant households. The number of such children on the Island rose 32.1 percent from 2007 to 2014; the statewide increase was 20.4 percent, the report said.

Many school leaders have expressed doubt that they can afford to maintain current instruction and extracurricular activities while providing extra help for needy students.

That concern showed up in responses to a survey question posed by the superintendents’ council that asked, “Thinking ahead three years or so, how optimistic or pessimistic are you about whether your district will be able to fund programs and services adequate to the needs of your students?”

On the Island, 74 percent of superintendents said they were somewhat or very pessimistic, compared with 72 percent of school chiefs statewide. The survey, which was conducted online in August, drew responses from 361 superintendents statewide, including 57 in the bicounty region.

The superintendents’ council, like other education groups in Albany, has begun its annual push to persuade state lawmakers of the need to boost school financial aid next year.

One regional school representative interviewed Monday agreed that rising poverty often translates into increased costs of student services ranging from remedial instruction to health care.

Charles Russo, superintendent of East Moriches schools, said that trend has increased anxiety among many colleagues over their ability to deliver adequate school services in the future. Russo and others cited state property-tax caps on school taxation as one major factor that limits their ability to boost revenues and expand programs.

“We do know that the Island as a whole is losing school-age population, and that the new students coming in, in many cases, require more services than students who are exiting,” said Russo, who also serves as president of the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association.

“You’re taking away money from some areas, such as advanced education, and shifting it to needier students,” Russo added. “Your costs are going up, and your revenues are being held stagnant, or perhaps increasing just a little.”

Charles Dedrick, the state council’s executive director, echoed local concerns that tax caps and other state mandates, such as restrictions on districts’ reserve funds, could harm educational quality in the future.

“What is driving the concern is a sense that district leaders and voters can’t control the financial fates of their schools,” Dedrick said in a prepared statement.

One suggestion in the report is that the state might raise the legal limit on the amount of money districts can put aside in unrestricted reserves, sometimes known as “rainy day” funds. The current limit is 4 percent of annual budgets.

Some Albany government analysts have contended that school districts are too alarmist in their financial predictions. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s budget staff has forecast that school aid statewide will increase at least $1.1 billion, or 4.5 percent, during the next fiscal year.

A private analyst, Tim Hoefer, questioned Dedrick’s assertion that school leaders lack control over spending.

“School boards and administrations negotiate contracts for school employees, which make up somewhere in the neighborhood of 75 or 80 percent of costs,” said Hoefer, executive director of the Albany-based Empire Center for New York State Policy, a conservative nonprofit think tank. “So, yes, they have control over their budgets.”

Children in poverty and English-language learners

A New York State Council of School Superintendents report shows Long Island had larger increases in children in poverty and English-language learners from 2007 to 2014 than the rise statewide.

Children in poverty, percent change, 2007-2014

Long Island: 53.2%

New York state: 11.4%

English-language learners, percent change, 2007-2014

Long Island: 32.1%

New York state: 20.4%

Source: New York State Council of School Superintendents’ report “Something has to give,” October 2016

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