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Mixed reviews for law requiring district reports on by-school basis

Members of the State Assembly consider budget bills

Members of the State Assembly consider budget bills at the state Capitol in Albany on Friday, March 30, 2018. Credit: AP / Hans Pennink

Legislation in the new state budget requiring school districts to report building-by-building spending drew mixed reactions from state education groups, with some calling it a win for transparency and others decrying it as another “paperwork requirement.”

The law, which was included in Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s budget proposal, mandates that districts submit a report to the state Education Department and Division of Budget detailing expenditures by school building or risk losing increases in state aid.

The requirement, which starts in the 2018-19 school year, will be phased in over three years. Eventually, all 700-plus districts statewide will have to submit a report for approval.

Districts initially affected under the law are those located within a city with a population of more than 1 million or which have at least four school buildings and also receive at least 50 percent of their total revenue from state aid.

That applies to the New York City system and 75 other school districts. A list was not immediately available Saturday, but probably will include several on Long Island, such as Hempstead and Brentwood.

The Hempstead school system probably will be included in the first round of districts expected to report to the state this year.

Acting Superintendent Regina Armstrong said Saturday that the district already was aligning its 2018-19 budget to show building-by-building expenditures. She noted that the report may not necessarily reflect the same resources going to all buildings because of a variety of factors, such as the number of students receiving special education services.

“It depends upon if they are looking for equality or equity,” she said. “If it’s equity that you’re looking for, then we can definitely show that. But if they’re looking for every building to have the same thing, then of course the building-by-building budget lines would break out the fact that things are not necessarily going to be equal, because there are other factors.”

Ian Rosenblum, executive director of The Education Trust-New York, the local arm of the national nonprofit advocacy organization, said the new requirement addresses “fundamental questions that school districts should be asking anyway.”

Rosenblum said it “lays out a process for parents and the public to have a window into those conversations and what it means for the resources and opportunities that exist from one school to another.”

The New York State Council for School Superintendents, however, said the legislation wasn’t needed because the state’s plan under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act already would require districts to report school-by-school spending starting in December 2019.

“At best this is premature, because ESSA will throw a spotlight on what is going on, and in some places force a discussion about why there are disparities,” said Robert Lowry, the council’s director for advocacy, research and communication.

“But not every disparity will be inequity,” Lowry said, adding that there can be differences between buildings. For example, one building may house fewer grades, all of the special education programs could be concentrated in one school, and the average years of experience of teachers per building will have an impact, he said.

Unlike ESSA, which is retrospective in looking at what districts have spent, the state law will be prospective, looking at what they plan to spend, Lowry said.

The council still is waiting to see how the state law is implemented, questioning whether it gives the state Division of Budget or the Education Department authority over district spending.

“What we do anticipate is that this will be very frustrating to school officials, because again, they’re already subject to so much. . . . This is another paperwork requirement,” Lowry said.

Cuomo, at a news conference late Friday night in the state Capitol, said data on per-school spending required under the new law “is just essential to an informed debate.”

He said it will spur discussion about “how are some school districts so low and some are so high, should we be distributing regionally, or should we be distributing by need and equalizing the poor schools and the richer schools? I would say yes.”

The submissions must outline funding by source for each school, the policies by which the funds were allocated and the demographics of each school.

Districts have the opportunity to submit a revised spending plan if the original is deemed incomplete. If the district fails to comply, the comptroller or chief financial officer of the municipality within which the school district is located is authorized to obtain the information and submit the form, according to the legislation.

“To me, this new law complements ESSA in a powerful and meaningful way, because it makes sure that we can have the conversation about equity before the spending occurs,” Rosenblum said. “ESSA then gives us the opportunity to look back and ask what happened.”

With Michael Gormley

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