Fewer than 1 in 10 districts applied for the grants and only $17 million of a possible $50 million was awarded, according to the Citizens Budget Commission, a fiscal watchdog. The grant process is too confusing and the awards too small to encourage participation, the CBC said.
"It may be too early to reach definitive conclusions, but the experience raised question about the efficacy of this method of distributing school aid," said the CBC, which recommended that the state not expand the grants program and instead distribute more money through the conventional school-aid formula.
Only 40 of the more than 700 school districts across New York won grants. On Long Island, Uniondale and Brentwood won performance improvement grants of $900,000 and $853,000 respectively. Management efficiency grants went to the Three Village Central School District, $249,000, and the Mineola School District, $213,000.
The CBC said that 70 schools applied for the performance grants and just 38 applied for the management awards.
The Cuomo administration attributed the low participation to the requirement that applicants have a teacher-evaluation plan in place. Because districts were putting those plans into place in 2012, many couldn't apply.
"Now that 99 percent of districts have a system in place, we anticipate much more competition in addition to the districts that were already rewarded for their innovative programs," Cuomo spokesman Rich Azzopardi said in an email.
Azzopardi said the administration was committed to the grants program. Cuomo has proposed doubling the amount earmarked for the grant programs in the 2013-14 academic year.
"What we can't afford is a return to the bad old days where special interests drove spending through the roof while graduation rates remained in the basement," Azzopardi said.
But a critic of the program agreed with the CBC analysis.
"The first year of the program was not a success," said Billy Easton of the Alliance for Quality Education, a group that lobbies for needy school districts. "They tried to give away $50 million but were able to only give away $17 million. The money would have been better spent going to regular classroom aid."
Easton said Cuomo's proposal to double the grants program "doesn't make sense" based on the first year's results.