Bixhorn: LI needs fair share of school aid
Gary D. Bixhorn is chief operating officer of Eastern Suffolk BOCES and legislative chairperson of the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association.
Long Island's representatives in Albany took an important step toward improving the state's financial footing last week in supporting efforts to revise the tax code. The additional revenues that will result will significantly reduce next year's projected budget deficit of $3.5 billion, and enable Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to fund the $805 million school-aid increase he announced last spring as part of a two-year plan. The increase ultimately agreed to during the upcoming state budget negotiations will be welcome after three years of freezes and reductions.
Our elected officials also did well by reducing the burden of the MTA payroll tax, which has been so onerous to our business community as well as local governments. While school districts were reimbursed for their tax payments, Long Island BOCES and municipalities were not. Annual payments of about $1.2 million by the three Long Island BOCES, which were funded by local school districts, were not reimbursed. The recently enacted legislation will eliminate these payments and reduce the burden for our schools.
These steps are an excellent start to what promises to be a challenging legislative session. Because while the promised additional school aid is good news, it will only help Long Island property taxpayers if it is distributed fairly.
Unfortunately, the formulas used to distribute state aid already shortchange Long Island. And they will become even less sensitive to our needs if the 2012-2013 Board of Regents state aid proposal is adopted.
The Regents have proposed eliminating aid categories that support schools in high-cost regions like Long Island. In the overall state aid picture, these categories represent very little -- less than 1.1 percent. But 70 percent of these funds come to Long Island. We can't afford to lose this money.
Complicating matters, school leaders from other parts of the state affiliated with the Statewide School Finance Consortium are engaged in a campaign to redirect aid from Long Island school districts to other regions. They believe that too much money continues to "flow to the wealthiest communities," several of which are in our region.
Many of the school districts represented by the consortium are among the poorest in the state and are in dire financial straits. They should be advocating for the funding they need. But their approach is misguided; they shouldn't be arguing that our aid be sent elsewhere.
Their efforts ignore the facts about Long Island. Our wealthiest schools -- those they target -- receive minimal state support to begin with. On average, less than 10 percent of their budgets are funded by the state, leaving more than 90 percent to be funded with local property taxes. If all of these districts lost all their aid, and it was redistributed to all the other districts in the state, it would amount to only a $39 per pupil increase.
The bottom line is that you can't take what isn't there. In order to redirect a significant amount of funding, appropriations to mid- and even some low-wealth districts would have to be reduced. Districts in these categories, which enroll over 80 percent of our region's students, are already struggling due to a lack of aid.
Simply stated, it would be unfair and counterproductive to channel any of Long Island's existing school funding to other parts of the state, and we must be assured of a fair share of any new funding that becomes available. Long Island schools, especially those that are less wealthy, cut back dramatically this year as a result of financial constraints, eliminating 1,455 staff positions Islandwide between last year and this one. Rather than further reductions in state funding to districts that are already overdependent on property taxes, we need formulas that are fair to all communities.
Our elected officials will have their hands full during the upcoming legislative session. They need to make the case for funding our schools. They did a good job rewriting the tax code. Now they need our support to finish the job they started.
This is a corrected version of the essay. Due to an editing error, an earlier version gave the wrong date for the Board of Regents state aid proposal.