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State owes high-needs school districts billions, says report

Students in a ninth-grade algebra class on May

Students in a ninth-grade algebra class on May 1, 2013, at Center Moriches High School. Credit: Heather Walsh

High-need schools in New York State have missed out on a disproportionate amount of cash during the past several years compared with school districts in wealthier areas, a new report states.

The report, prepared by activist groups Alliance for Quality Education and Opportunity Action, says in addition to being behind on what it owes to schools -- $5.9 billion -- the state owes 2.3 times more to high-need schools than wealthy ones.

The amount includes $1 billion in gap elimination adjustment funds stemming from cuts made in 2010 and 2011. Foundation aid accounts for $4.9 billion, which was to be fulfilled by 2011 after the New York State Court of Appeals ruled that the state was in violation of students' constitutional rights to a "sound and basic education," the report says.

The report -- titled "Billions Behind: New York State Continues to Violate Students' Constitutional Rights" -- called the situation "unconstitutional." With the state entering the next fiscal year with a $6.2 billion surplus, "there is no excuse to continue to make our students lose out," Billy Easton, executive director of AQE, said in a statement.

Rich Azzopardi, a spokesman for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, responded to the report in a prepared statement: "The fact is that education funding in New York is at an all-time high, while this administration over the last four years has instituted reforms that injected accountability and rigor into the system." He did not respond to specific questions about the report.

Debates over public school dollars have been stirring since the gap adjustment was implemented in 2010 and, in 2012, came to a boiling point when critics and supporters clashed over Cuomo's plans to use $250 million in aid money for competitive grants to award districts that improve academic results, an effort that some said would shortchange poor, minority school districts.

Roberta Gerold, president of the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association and superintendent at Middle Country schools, a high-needs district, called the report's findings "unconscionable."

"The Constitution requires a student to be provided an appropriate education during the mandated years of kindergarten through 12th, and every piece of attention should be paid to make sure students in every district receive what they need to be competitive when they leave us," Gerold said in an interview.

The report recommends the $5.9 billion be invested back into schools over the next four years, with an emphasis on prioritizing high-needs schools by adjusting the foundation aid formula -- which some Long Island education officials have said does not take into account the high cost of living and school taxes that leave Island districts without adequate fiscal support.

Gerold applauded Long Island elected officials who have "tried really hard" to get equitable funding but said the annual process still poses challenges.

"Politics gets in the way, of course, in who's going to get what," Gerold said.

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