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School-aid formula changes eyed

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North country legislators are writing bills that they say would bring more state money to north country schools, after years of the poor, rural districts getting shortchanged.

“Local schools are feeling the brunt of the cuts while wealthy school districts are essentially unaffected,” said Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell, D-Theresa, who submitted a bill Friday that would change the labyrinthine school-aid formula.

State Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, is working on separate legislation.

“We’ve been working on this for a number of months,” she said.

But the legislation faces hurdles, and school aid distribution among the many regions of the state is sure to be one of the marquee battles in next year’s legislative session between Long Island, New York City and upstate.

The legislators’ bills would change a formula that determines wealth in a school district.

Schools are assigned a number based on their wealth to determine, in part, how much school aid they need, from 0.65 at the poorest to 2 at the richest. But some schools are actually poorer than a 0.65, making them appear wealthier than they are. Similarly, some schools are well above the top threshold of 2, making them appear poorer than they actually are. That means the poorest schools don’t get the money that they need, and richest schools get funds they don’t deserve, Mrs. Russell argues. Her bill would change the minimum wealth number to 0.25 and the maximum wealth number to 3. Mrs. Ritchie’s legislation also would shift the numbers, she said, but her office could not provide a draft copy of the bill and she did not recall the exact numbers.

Statewide, 339 school districts are poorer than their 0.65 rating would suggest, many of those in the north country, according to numbers provided by the New York State Association of Small City School Districts.

“There’s general interest, because I think there’s a recognition that the formula needs some major overhauling,” said Robert E. Biggerstaff, a lawyer who is representing a group of families in a lawsuit that challenges the state law on school aid. He is also the executive director of the small city school district association.

The legislation also would take away some automatic funding increases that wealthy schools receive, Mr. Biggerstaff said. So the legislation is not expected to cost the state any more money.

The bills also would use the highest population level of students at a school in five previous years, which will keep funding levels steady even in schools whose populations are dropping.

Studies suggest that the school aid cuts enacted last year disproportionately hit poor school districts. According to the Alliance for Quality Education, a labor-backed group, the poorest schools were cut $547 per student, poor schools were cut $843 per student, and below-average schools were cut $727 per student. Wealthy school districts were cut $269 per student.

State Sen. John J. Flanagan, a Republican from Long Island who chairs the chamber’s Education Committee, said it’s not fair to say that wealthy schools were not affected by last year’s cuts.

“Everybody took cuts, so that bears repeating,” Mr. Flanagan said. “I have plenty of schools I could point to in various communities throughout the state. They took cuts. Do I think the rural schools took more cuts? Yes.”

Mr. Flanagan noted that an easier path to changing the school aid formula is for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to put it in his executive budget, which will be released in January. Mr. Cuomo’s office did not respond to calls for comment.

The state’s 2011 budget turned to two-year appropriations — that is, instead of deciding every year how much money schools would receive, the budget will outline funding levels for the current year and the year after. In 2012, school aid funding will increase by 4 percent, as per the 2011 budget. The size of the pie has been decided. The size of the slices for each region has not.

Despite a $3.5 billion expected budget gap next year, Mr. Flanagan said he does not expect the Legislature or Mr. Cuomo to take back the 4 percent increase that was promised last year.

“I’d be very surprised if they tried to do less,” Mr. Flanagan said, adding that it is possible that more funding will be provided.

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