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LI schools: Taking steps toward financial fairness

Changes in New York's complex formula for giving state aid to public schools, part of the budget bill that passed April 1, mean more dollars for districts that have the greatest need, proponents say.

Educators, parents and students from Long Island school

Educators, parents and students from Long Island school districts with large populations of students of color rallied in Mineola in October to appeal for more state aid for their systems. Districts represented included Brentwood, Hempstead, Uniondale, Westbury and Wyandanch. Photo Credit: Howard Schnapp

New York State, which faces the gargantuan task each year of delivering billions of dollars in aid to 670-plus public school districts, is steering more money for the 2019-20 academic year toward the poorest recipients.

The redistribution deals with what is known as “foundation aid” — one major category of a larger state-aid package that totals more than $27 billion statewide. Other categories of state financial assistance reimburse local districts for costs such as bus transportation and construction. Foundation aid funds are used to more equitably apportion money to districts.

The State Legislature, fully controlled by Democrats for the first time in a decade, this spring made complex changes to the foundation-aid formula to ensure that poorer school systems receive more from the financial pot.

Brian Fessler, an executive and analyst for the New York State School Boards Association, likened the approach to an ice-cream truck offering multiple flavors to meet different customers’ tastes.

On Long Island, which encompasses 124 districts, the switches in funding will translate into more money in 2019-20 for systems facing special circumstances, such as increases in poverty rates or numbers of students who speak limited English.

Beneficiaries include the Amityville school district, which has been tapped for an aid increase of $3.7 million, or 13 percent above this year’s figure. Others are the Valley Stream 30 district, which is getting an extra $1.4 million, or 18 percent more, and the Glen Cove system, which is due an additional $1.3 million, a nearly 10 percent increase from the current year’s allotment.

One Amityville school board trustee, Laura McVeety Pawlewicz, who is running for re-election, said she appreciates the extra state assistance, but believes it barely compensates for federal grant money lost two years ago by her district and others in the region.

Pawlewicz said the district has experienced an 11 percent increase in Spanish-speaking students during the three years she has been on the board and needs more state help for preschool programs and other services.

“I’m always going to be seeking more money,” said Pawlewicz, a mother of two. “The taxes we pay down here are incredible. You know, we have an exceptional situation here — children with financial need.”

Pawlewicz’s opponent in the board race, Andrew Ayodeji, said the extra state cash will be helpful next year, and he would like the district to be more transparent in explaining its spending allocations.

“That’s why I’m here, so we can have a better idea where the money is going,” said Ayodeji, who runs a local summer baseball league for children and adults, referring to his board candidacy.

Tuesday is when school board elections and budget votes will take place in districts statewide.

Pawlewicz and Ayodeji are among 271 candidates in 66 districts on Long Island seeking board seats in contested elections. Details on board races and district spending proposals totaling more than $13 billion are detailed in this School Voters Guide.

A key question raised throughout this budget season is whether local school districts, especially the poorest, get their fair share of state financial assistance.

National comparisons show that New York spends heavily on public elementary and secondary education: It ranked No. 1 among states in 2017-18, spending an average $23,894 per pupil, according to figures released by the National Education Association last month. That put New York ahead of the second-ranked state, New Jersey, by a margin of $3,723 per pupil.

However, within New York State, poorer school districts face a sizable disadvantage in raising revenues through property taxes.

A report by the state Education Department in August reported “tremendous disparities” between districts rich and poor, despite the role of state aid in providing partial equalization.

On the Island, for example, taxable wealth in Hempstead and Wyandanch is one-third the state average, while in Cold Spring Harbor, Locust Valley and Oyster Bay it is more than three times the state average.

The annual tug-of-war over school aid took an unexpected turn after November’s elections, when Democrats won a majority in the State Senate. Speculation then revolved around whether the Nassau-Suffolk region, long dependent on support from Senate Republicans, would suffer aid losses.

On April 1, the answer emerged when the State Legislature, where Democrats also control the Assembly, allotted the Island’s districts 12.96 percent of all new aid. That was the same share the Island obtained a year before.

So the status quo was maintained between the Island and other regions of the state, even as aid money shifted around within the regions themselves. Fessler, who is deputy director of governmental relations for the school boards group, dug into details of how it happened.

For starters, Fessler reported, those who drafted the aid package reduced the minimum amount of money guaranteed to all districts in the form of “foundation aid,” the state’s largest category of assistance. This year’s minimum increase was 1.9 percent; for 2019-20, it drops to 0.75 percent.

The reduction in broad-scale payments to all districts left lawmakers with a pot of money they were able to concentrate on a smaller number of the neediest systems next year, Fessler found.

Next, for distributing that money, budget writers created 10 new “tier” groups, or categories of districts, which received differing amounts of money depending on perceived need. For the current school year, only four tiers were used in distributing aid.

Fessler favors the state’s funding changes, saying the new distribution mechanism, while complex, was necessary in reaching districts with the greatest need. He added that tight state finances left limited room for funding reform.

“There was certainly a push toward equity,” Fessler said.

Not all intended beneficiaries of the aid changes reported being helped.

One such district, Hempstead, announced on April 30 that it planned to cut 100 teaching and support-staff positions ahead of the 2019-20 school year. One reason, according to the acting superintendent, Regina Armstrong, was that the aid allotment for the district was less than hoped.

Glen Cove’s superintendent, Maria Rianna, in a phone interview, thanked state lawmakers for helping her district obtain extra money. Among legislators she cited were Sen. Shelley Mayer (D-Yonkers), chairman of the Senate’s Education Committee, Sen. James Gaughran (D-Northport) and Assemb. Charles Lavine (D-Glen Cove).

Glen Cove was among a small group of districts that lobbied together for additional state help, calling themselves “the forgotten five.” The group included Riverhead and Westbury, also located on the Island, along with Ossining and Port Chester in Westchester County.

Rianna, who visited Albany in March with representatives of other districts, said the group obtained some extra assistance, but not as much as they wanted.

The Glen Cove schools chief contended her district deserved more money, in part, because of growth in the number of its students deemed economically disadvantaged. That figure has reached 64 percent, according to the state’s latest figures.

Rianna added that the problem is not Glen Cove’s alone.

“I think Long Island as a whole does not get its fair share, and I work with my Nassau and Suffolk colleagues to advocate for a fair share in the distribution,” she said.

State Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach) described the latest restructuring as an initial step toward greater equity. He added that the movement will take time because the needs of underfunded districts had been “ignored for some time.”

“Look, I think we all understand there are tremendous needs in some areas that not any one budget is going to be able to fix,” said Kaminsky, a leader of the Island’s new delegation of Senate Democrats. “How we help districts with those concerns is a long-term problem that we’re grappling with, and this budget was our first attempt to attack that problem.”

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