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Six LI districts grapple with new by-school spending reports

Howard Koenig, superintendent of the Central Islip school

Howard Koenig, superintendent of the Central Islip school district, is shown in a classroom at the district's Early Childhood Center on Friday. Credit: Michael Owens

Six Long Island districts are scrambling to gather figures showing how much they spend per student in each of their school buildings, as part of what state leaders call a broad effort to shed light on education funding in the nation's highest-spending state.

The state budget office set an Aug. 31 deadline for the first round of disclosures of school-level spending in 76 districts statewide, including the half-dozen systems in Nassau and Suffolk counties and New York City. The project is to expand over the next two years, ultimately extending to more than 120 districts on the Island and more than 670 statewide.

The state's new financial reporting requirements, spelled out in a law adopted in the spring, have drawn widespread skepticism from local school administrators. Many object to the new mandates as a paperwork burden better suited to New York City, with its 1,600 school buildings, than to their own smaller suburban systems.

Local districts picked by the state for participation are Brentwood, Central Islip, Hempstead, Roosevelt, William Floyd and Wyandanch. Selection in this first round was limited to districts that depend on the state for more than half their total revenues — that is, systems where the local tax base is relatively small.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo sought adoption of the new school-funding disclosures, partly on grounds that greater public scrutiny is needed in New York because it ranks No. 1 among states in per-pupil spending for public schools. The statewide average is $22,366, and most of the Island's districts top that level, according to the most recent U.S. Census figures. The national average is $11,762.

New York State’s push for greater financial transparency is part of a national movement supported by civil rights groups and social reformers. One idea behind the movement is that disclosure could reveal whether public schools in poor, mostly minority communities get shortchanged financially compared with schools in wealthier neighborhoods.

Cuomo’s budget director, Robert Mujica, who is helping spearhead the project, addressed the issue in a letter to local school administrators on July 11. The letter was accompanied by more than 40 pages of instructions on how to fill out state forms, drawing on per-pupil funding, student enrollment, teachers’ years of experience, instructional salaries and other granular data.

“New York schools are funded at the highest level per pupil of any state — 86 percent above the national average,” Mujica stated. “But spending totals alone are an imperfect metric for ensuring access to high-quality education. The more important question is whether poorer schools are funded equitably.”

New York and other states have compiled per-pupil spending figures at district levels for many years, but calculations at the school level are more rare. A federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, requires school-level financial reports nationwide starting in December 2019.

Representatives of the half-dozen local districts involved in the project told Newsday they intend to comply with the state's requirements, though some are proceeding reluctantly. The fact that the initiative is tied to an Aug. 31 deadline means that districts should be posting school spending figures on their websites right around the time classes open in early September.

Under the state law, any district failing to comply risks having a portion of its state aid temporarily withheld.

“Yes, it might be a pain in terms of all we do in getting ready for the fall, but it’s a requirement and we’re going to comply with the law,” said Howard Koenig, superintendent of Central Islip schools and a veteran administrator with more than 20 years’ experience.

Koenig voiced doubts, however, about the new reporting system’s effectiveness. He disagreed with advocates of the system who say it could help spotlight funding inequities in districts that allow teachers with the greatest seniority and highest pay to choose the schools to which they are assigned.

Those advocates say such policies provide a built-in advantage to schools that serve more affluent neighborhoods, and thus may be considered most desirable by teachers. Koenig disputed that, saying younger teachers often prove as competent as their more experienced colleagues.

"You know, we have younger teachers who are superstars — it happens all the time," he said.

Another concern of local school officials is that some parents and other residents may jump to the conclusion that their neighborhood school is shortchanged, simply because other schools in the district show higher levels of per-pupil spending. Officials noted there are many reasons why one school might legitimately receive more money than another building down the road.

As one example, administrators cited schools that include concentrations of special education students who require smaller classes and higher levels of service than students in regular classes. Average spending may well be higher in such schools without representing any inequity, officials said.

"It's not so much that we fear the release of data, but rather that people will misinterpret the data," said Richard Loeschner, superintendent of Brentwood schools.

The state's reporting form seeks to deal with such situations by asking districts to describe "anything unique about certain schools which explain why per pupil spending at these locations may be significantly higher/lower than the district average."

Top Ten States for Per-Student Spending

Here is average per-student spending in states with the highest expenditures on public education.

New York — $22,366

Connecticut — $18,958

New Jersey — $18,402

Vermont — $17,873

Alaska — $17,510

Wyoming — $16,442

Massachusetts — $15,593

Rhode Island — $15,532

Pennsylvania — $15,418

New Hampshire — $15,340

Source: U.S. Census, 2016

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