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Uneven formula? Dollars for education often scarce in high-need districts

Under New York's funding formula, school districts in less-wealthier areas are outspent by districts with higher property values and stronger tax bases. School districts such as William Floyd and Hempstead are looking at ways to make up the deficit, including asking the state for more financial help. Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara / Chris Ware

Long Island's wealthiest school districts outspend the poorest districts by more than $6,000 per student, pointing to a persistent funding inequality in public education, a Newsday analysis shows.

Calls for a funding overhaul are growing, as leaders in less-wealthy communities such as Brentwood, Westbury and Wyandanch say New York State's formula for distributing public school aid is unfair. 

“It is such an inequitable system," said Roger Tilles of Manhasset, who represents the Island on the state’s Board of Regents. "And I don’t see it changing real quickly, unless a court steps in and says, ‘You have to change it,’ or unless lightning strikes.”

The funding gap is revealed in the state’s latest figures for the top-spending 20% of school districts in Nassau and Suffolk counties, as compared with the lowest spenders, according to the Newsday analysis. The disparities are tied to the very way in which the system is mainly funded, through property owners, experts noted.

Since the bulk of funding regionwide comes from property taxes, districts with expensive homes or commercial real estate can generate greater amounts of tax revenue than poorer districts, even though tax rates in the wealthier communities generally are lower.

“The poorest people on Long Island pay the highest proportion of their salaries to property taxes for their schools because they have no commercial property or virtually none,” said Tilles, who recently outlined the financial challenges facing struggling districts during a discussion sponsored by the Long Island Association, the region’s largest business organization.

While effects of unequal funding differ from district to district, school representatives interviewed over the past several months said the impact is especially noticeable in advanced academic programs. This includes shortages in underfunded schools of college-level Advanced Placement classes or high-tech courses requiring use of expensive digital equipment. 

Poorer communities that often need the most resources are the ones less able to afford it. The Hempstead district, for instance, issued a letter to Albany officials in December warning that more than $12 million might have to be cut from the 2020-21 budget unless it receives more state aid. Hempstead, which enrolls 7,700 students, is Nassau's largest K-12 district and also its poorest in terms of taxable wealth.

Hempstead's push for more money from Albany has prompted renewed calls from some local critics for tighter state monitoring of the district's finances. 

Island districts in the wealthiest bracket include Locust Valley, which spent $29,358 per student during the 2018-19 school year; Port Jefferson, which spent $27,192; and Oyster Bay, $24,134. The least-wealthy group included Brentwood, which spent $14,019 last year; Roosevelt, $16,488; and William Floyd, $17,390. Hempstead spent $18,761.

Figures are "approved operating expenditures" calculated by the state Education Department. They cover day-to-day spending and exclude some costs, such as school construction. The state defines wealth as a combination of taxable property and household income.

According to the state’s latest estimates, local tax rates per $1,000 of actual property value were $17.06 in Locust Valley, $13.83 in Port Jefferson and $13.01 in Oyster Bay. In contrast, tax rates were $20.98 in Brentwood, $21.90 in Roosevelt and $27.79 in William Floyd — where property values are generally lower.

Bill Powell, a semiretired educator who grew up in Roosevelt, said many property owners there feel pressured by high taxes to rent their houses to multiple families. This, he said, brings additional children into the district, further increasing the financial strain on schools. 

"You can pass through Roosevelt and see two or three satellite-dish TV antennas on a single house," Powell said. "It's not rocket science to figure that out."

The issue of inequitable funding is nationwide. A 2018 report by The Education Trust, a Washington-based research and advocacy group, found that in 27 states, districts with the highest poverty rates did not receive additional money based on their increased need. 

"Internationally, we're one of the nations that does the worst job addressing inequities," said Arne Duncan, a former U.S. education secretary in the Obama administration, now managing partner of the Emerson Collective, a social-change organization based in Palo Alto, California.

"For me, the solution is very simple, it's to raise spending at the federal level," Duncan said during a phone interview last week. "It has to be at the national level. If we leave it to states and districts, it will never happen and has never happened."

One national expert with firsthand knowledge of the parallels between Long Island and the rest of the nation is Daniel A. Domenech, executive director of the AASA, formerly known as the American Association of School Administrators. The group, headquartered in a Washington, D.C., suburb, represents more than 13,000 school superintendents and other administrators. 

"Basically, Long Island is a microcosm of the inequities that exist in New York and across the country," said Domenech, an educator with more than 50 years' experience.

Domenech knows the region well, having served as superintendent of the local Deer Park and South Huntington districts, as well as the regional Western Suffolk BOCES in the 1980s and '90s. Domenech, who was also interviewed last week, noted that Canadian provinces, equivalent to states, took over responsibility for school funding during the '90s, thus providing a broader and more even level of support. 

"Really, it's a simple problem with a simple solution," Domenech said. "Yet, we'll never have the political courage to change things."

An exception is Vermont, which in 1997 moved toward statewide funding of public schools through use of a state-share property tax. Vermont's reform, like efforts in Canada, had the effect of leveling the field somewhat, though some property-rich Vermont towns responded by setting up education foundations to raise money privately. 

Scott Sargrad of the Center for American Progress, a liberal public-policy group in Washington, praised Vermont's example. "The idea of moving toward more of a state-funding basis is very important," said Sargrad, who is the center's vice president for K-12 education. 

In New York, education leaders do not expect a quick fix of the state's funding disparities, in part because of a looming budget crunch.

New York’s Division of the Budget reported recently that the state faces a potential deficit in the next fiscal year of more than $6 billion — the biggest funding gap in 10 years. A budget division spokesman, Freeman Klopott, said Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo already has gone far in promoting a fairer distribution of school aid.

“Governor Cuomo has delivered record levels of school aid, including $27.9 billion this year with over 70% of the $1 billion increase going to high-need districts,” Klopott stated.

Nationally, New York invests more money in public education than any state, an average of $23,265 per student, according to the latest figures from the National Education Association.

School spending statewide this budget cycle totals more than $70 billion, with about 55% coming from property taxes and other local sources, 41% from state aid and grants, and the rest from federal sources. Spending in the Nassau-Suffolk region is $13.1 billion, with about 68% coming from localities, 25% from the state, and most of the rest from the federal government.

One common complaint on the Island is that the funding formula doesn’t take adequate account of recent growth in the number of immigrant students requiring expensive tutoring in English. Over the past five years, the number of such students has jumped 46% Islandwide, to a total of more than 40,000.

Hempstead estimates, for example, that providing added instruction for the more than 3,000 local students with limited English skills would cost an extra $9.5 million a year, with the bulk of the money used to hire more teachers, translators and classroom aides.

In November, during a roundtable discussion in Seaford with the State Senate’s Democratic majority, Richard Loeschner, superintendent of Brentwood schools, said his district alone had more than 7,000 students classified as English-language learners. Brentwood is the Island’s biggest district, with an enrollment of about 18,000. 

“As I sit here today, it’s about 12:15, 12:30, I’m sure that we signed up probably 25 to 35 new students just today,” Loeschner told those in the meeting. “By the end of the week, we’ll probably have seen about 100 to 120 new families come through at the registration office. We do not have a gatekeeper. We take every student. We follow the law to the ‘t.’ We’re quite proud of that. We welcome and love every kid who shows up at Brentwood.

"But these numbers are pretty staggering. We have more ELL students than many cities.”

Another conferee, Cordelia Anthony, who teaches classes in Living Environment at Farmingdale High School, said she's constantly reminded of the need to expand educational services for students who are homeless, speak limited English or struggle with disabilities.

“In the classroom every day, I see that these students need to graduate,” said Anthony, who also serves as president of Farmingdale’s 500-member teacher union. “And I watch and see them try year after year when they first come in. And they try over and over and over, but there’s not enough resources to help them.”

Exchanges at the Seaford conference between regional school leaders and elected representatives went on for more than three hours. The lawmaker in charge, state Sen. Shelley B. Mayer (D-Port Chester), chairwoman of the State Senate Education Committee, assured participants that expanding school aid remained a top priority for Democrats, who took control of the Senate in the 2018 elections.

However, Mayer, who represents portions of suburban Westchester County as well as Yonkers, also noted that the goal of increased school aid was constrained by several factors, including statewide growth in Medicaid costs.

“There’s not an unlimited pie,” Mayer told the Seaford gathering.

Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx), speaking on the State Assembly floor Thursday, said school aid had increased $6 billion since 2015 and should expand again next year, though he didn't specify a figure. 

"Let's keep that momentum this year by providing our school districts with the resources they need to allow our children to succeed, beginning with pre-K," Heastie said.

Across the region, many school representatives said the need for a funding overhaul has become more urgent since 2012-13, when the state first tightened “cap” restrictions on property taxation. Caps make it harder for poor districts to raise revenue locally, educators said.

Generally speaking, caps limit annual growth in property taxes to 2% or the inflation rate, whichever is lower. Rate increases vary from district to district, depending on how much spending in each locality is exempt from caps. 

Hempstead is a district that faces an immediate cash crunch. Last spring, Hempstead announced layoffs of 100 teachers and other staff, in large part because a growing number of its students were transferring to nearby charter schools, forcing the district to pay out more than $34 million in tuition. For the current 2019-20 school year, tuition costs are between $43 million and $44 million, threatening further reductions, the district said. 

Under state law, districts must cover the costs of educating students who reside within their borders but who opt to attend charter schools. Such schools operate independently of districts. 

“Without a substantial increase in state aid, the district will be faced with cutting more staff to balance its budget for 2020-21,” Regina Armstrong, the district’s interim superintendent, stated in a letter circulated among state officials Dec. 2. She added that any such layoffs could result in class sizes exceeding 35 students, along with losses of security guards.

Class sizes in Hempstead tended to run high, even before the latest round of teacher layoffs. During the 2017-18 school year, eighth grade science classes in Hempstead averaged 31 students and 10th grade math classes 25 students, compared with statewide averages of 23 and 20, respectively. 

At Hempstead High School, students said they regret the cancellation of an SAT prep course imposed as part of this year's program cuts and worry about the potential impact if more teachers are lost.

Senior William Mejicano, 17, said he and his classmates depend particularly on teachers who are willing to provide them with extra academic help after school.

“They’re always there for us,” Mejicano said. “But if they receive a cut, they’re not going to be wanting to stay as much, right? So if the whole school gets a cut, they’re going to feel it, and we’re going to feel it, too.”

Many district residents agree that Hempstead needs more state money but insist Albany should first appoint local fiscal monitors to make sure the money is properly spent. These skeptics point to a series of recent state reports spotlighting fiscal mismanagement in the district.

Legislation authorizing monitors for the Hempstead and Wyandanch districts was approved by state lawmakers in June and forwarded to Cuomo on Dec. 30. The governor has not yet declared whether he will sign the bills into law, push for amendments or veto them. 

“Everyone agrees that money matters,” Gwendolyn Jackson, a former vice president of Hempstead’s school board, said in a statement issued just days after Armstrong posted her letter. “However, we must also demand accountability for the money we do have.”

School DistrictActual Value (2017) of Property per PupilApproved Operating Expenditure per PupilEstimated Local Tax Rate per $1,000 of Actual Value2017 State Revenue other than STAR per Pupil
Amagansett $34,941,959$94,894$1.83$2,346
Amityville $683,887$19,743$23.61$9,081
Babylon $845,148$21,665$25.96$6,006
Baldwin $580,267$18,083$28.40$6,973
Bay Shore $513,970$17,902$27.57$7,545
Bayport Blue Point$668,036$22,881$28.99$8,465
Bellmore $852,251$26,548$26.73$4,961
Bellmore-Merrick$685,438$17,095$27.29$4,866
Bethpage $862,052$20,857$21.65$4,577
Brentwood $222,189$14,019$20.98$13,799
Bridgehampton $27,532,279$48,578$2.10$4,064
Carle Place $1,306,942$25,742$20.24$3,729
Center Moriches$491,571$17,999$25.83$7,757
Central Islip $269,429$19,847$35.98$14,073
Cold Spring Harbor$1,636,816$26,365$19.44$2,778
Commack $784,890$20,458$23.95$6,594
Comsewogue $522,816$16,172$23.72$8,329
Connetquot $772,816$21,137$22.23$10,121
Copiague $411,155$16,001$23.46$10,823
Deer Park $582,483$18,465$24.16$7,127
East Hampton $10,147,404$25,539$3.11$1,600
East Islip $634,920$20,114$24.44$10,175
East Meadow $630,908$19,053$24.71$6,192
East Moriches $636,961$18,008$25.22$6,402
East Quogue $1,902,545$32,445$11.41$1,679
East Rockaway $832,415$22,666$26.23$6,014
East Williston$1,201,842$25,202$22.65$2,294
Eastport-South Manor$529,264$15,721$25.11$10,786
Elmont $548,854$18,355$23.41$7,053
Elwood $761,118$20,327$24.05$6,929
Farmingdale $788,482$20,943$23.46$5,853
Fire Island $57,941,162$126,030$2.09$10,045
Fishers Island$31,044,092$55,595$3.82$3,158
Floral Park $784,061$15,536$19.88$3,475
Franklin Square$684,655$14,519$20.58$4,108
Freeport $355,279$16,246$28.62$11,333
Garden City $1,401,905$20,352$16.11$1,765
Glen Cove $944,814$17,425$17.80$3,849
Great Neck $1,765,461$22,897$14.45$1,647
Greenport $2,211,787$21,367$9.92$2,350
Half Hollow Hills$1,079,925$19,830$19.17$4,274
Hampton Bays $1,358,779$17,784$14.12$2,943
Harborfields $793,933$18,425$22.15$5,321
Hauppauge $1,153,261$21,437$17.62$4,928
Hempstead $167,096$18,761$42.64$12,961
Herricks $880,231$19,200$22.01$3,308
Hewlett Woodmere$884,747$26,204$32.25$3,662
Hicksville $1,019,492$17,725$16.25$3,643
Huntington $975,421$19,385$20.55$3,971
Island Park $1,984,498$31,577$13.51$3,028
Island Trees $617,554$18,834$25.73$7,578
Islip $633,251$20,404$27.56$7,963
Jericho $1,420,873$25,379$19.39$2,092
Kings Park $940,210$19,293$19.63$5,655
Lawrence $2,263,232$21,033$12.34$4,356
Levittown $506,368$20,979$32.57$8,177
Lindenhurst $535,749$18,509$26.41$9,530
Locust Valley $1,902,744$29,358$17.06$2,208
Long Beach $1,305,644$23,691$17.38$6,391
Longwood $480,480$16,547$25.25$10,188
Lynbrook $764,196$21,229$26.28$3,667
Malverne $695,765$20,680$26.96$6,317
Manhasset $1,778,983$20,462$12.96$1,710
Massapequa $910,247$21,561$22.48$4,474
Mattituck-Cutchogue$2,856,264$23,852$9.18$2,439
Merrick $804,865$25,026$27.19$4,748
Middle Country$509,486$17,752$24.48$9,881
Miller Place $575,505$17,771$24.61$8,313
Mineola $1,263,124$22,389$19.13$2,775
Montauk $11,772,590$38,563$2.96$2,097
Mount Sinai $616,697$18,265$24.00$7,708
New Hyde Park $845,452$17,063$19.59$3,746
North Babylon $482,171$16,779$22.91$10,226
North Bellmore$584,736$19,609$27.00$6,772
North Merrick $570,882$22,304$28.25$6,097
North Shore $1,467,420$28,787$18.94$2,077
Northport $1,463,975$21,914$15.74$3,017
Oceanside $920,156$19,579$21.21$3,961
Oyster Bay $2,163,694$24,134$13.01$2,102
Oysterponds $8,857,536$34,592$3.10$2,796
Patchogue-Medford$503,783$16,324$24.28$9,312
Plainedge $677,955$20,007$27.89$7,064
Plainview $876,454$20,180$23.13$3,954
Port Jefferson$2,013,170$27,192$13.83$3,530
Port Washington$1,266,251$21,335$17.50$1,781
Quogue $19,158,914$60,058$1.69$2,116
Remsenburg $5,869,075$54,560$5.94$2,081
Riverhead $886,139$15,318$15.91$5,493
Rockville Centre$899,306$23,124$25.99$3,428
Rocky Point $489,527$17,906$27.41$9,337
Roosevelt $226,501$16,488$21.90$20,230
Roslyn $1,274,397$23,969$20.00$1,888
South Huntington $706,887$18,441$22.98$6,161
Sachem $592,122$15,212$19.90$10,064
Sag Harbor $6,966,980$33,026$5.09$2,225
Sayville $660,690$21,468$26.02$9,268
Seaford $704,535$19,262$26.03$5,668
Sewanhaka $679,427$15,286$21.34$4,590
Shelter Island$15,039,459$41,309$2.96$2,874
Shoreham-Wading River$934,863$21,590$21.83$5,338
Smithtown $829,932$18,549$21.84$5,544
South Country $574,015$20,616$21.41$13,159
Southampton $14,435,071$30,455$2.36$2,177
Southold $3,182,270$26,138$8.68$2,517
Springs $3,340,168$24,228$6.22$1,671
Syosset $1,120,002$24,900$22.82$2,450
Three Village $874,872$23,441$25.26$7,277
Tuckahoe Common$4,676,753$43,332$7.53$2,890
Uniondale $528,698$19,419$26.23$7,190
Valley Stream 13$571,756$18,688$25.85$5,749
Valley Stream 24$589,063$20,839$27.00$5,917
Valley Stream Central$561,135$15,671$25.98$5,096
Valley Stream 30$525,662$17,737$24.58$5,439
Wantagh $673,680$18,881$24.98$5,950
West Babylon $604,369$19,569$25.28$9,027
West Hempstead$845,774$21,017$23.84$5,407
West Islip $697,151$19,483$24.06$8,492
Westbury $423,444$19,002$30.70$10,752
Westhampton Beach$3,899,271$20,667$6.74$1,405
William Floyd $348,763$17,390$27.79$13,787
Wyandanch $172,003$17,234$36.66$15,278

Note: The actual value of property per pupil measures the per-student values of taxable property wealth. The approved operating expenditure measures the per-student day-to-day expenses and excludes some costs, including school construction and renovation. The estimated local tax rate measures the taxable property rate per $1,000. The state revenue measures per-student amount of state aid directed to school districts, as opposed to STAR aid, which is the state's School Tax Relief program directed to taxpayers.

STATE AID FORMULA ANALYSIS

Newsday’s analysis drew on the latest available state Education Department data covering state-aid distribution, spending and taxation in all 124 districts in the Nassau-Suffolk region. To provide uniformity, the review focused especially on the 93 districts serving all grade levels, kindergarten through 12th grade, and enrolling at least 500 students.

Key areas examined:

Property wealth: Districts in the top 20% Islandwide had access to more than four times the taxable wealth of districts in the bottom 20%, proportionately speaking. Median property value was about $2 million per student for the top group, but only about $480,000 per student for the lowest group.

State financial aid: Albany, in an effort to boost revenue for districts with little taxable wealth of their own, has used progressive distribution formulas to steer large shares of state aid to those systems. Median state aid for districts in the richest category was less than $2,300 per student, while median assistance for the poorest category was more than $10,000 per student.

School spending: The infusion of state aid, however, was not nearly enough to equalize spending between districts. Median expenditures in the wealthiest cluster of districts amounted to more than $24,000 per student, while spending in the poorest group was less than $17,500 per student.

Taxes: While most residents of Nassau and western Suffolk likely would consider their taxes high, the relative burden was considerably heavier in poor districts. Richer districts in the region charged a median tax rate of less than $14 per $1,000 of actual property value, while the poorest group’s median rate was more than $26 per $1,000.

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