I met recently with several superintendents and school groups, and they all had a common message for me – the loss in aid for our Southern Tier school districts in this year’s proposed budget is unfair. I have to agree.
This year’s proposed school budget is devastating to school districts in the Southern Tier. Although I applaud Governor Andrew Cuomo’s efforts to try and offset funding losses to schools statewide, more must be done.
The biggest culprits of financial troubles for our schools are fourfold. First is school aid, which is determined by factors such as the wealth of a school district, need, and an assortment of other variables. As a result of the cuts that occurred over the past two years, schools have been faced with a barrage of financial difficulties, ultimately putting at risk the quality of education given to our children.
Second is Foundation Aid, which has been frozen at 2008-09 levels. This has severely crippled low- and average-wealth school districts since they rely heavily on school aid to cover regular operating expenses, salaries, etc. With no increases in Foundation Aid over the past few years, the financial situation schools face continues to deteriorate.
Third, the tax base population. It is not out of line to say that downstate districts have larger tax bases than upstate. Downstate districts can absorb cuts and state aid makes up a small percentage of their entire budget, while upstate school districts rely much more heavily on state aid as a percentage of their annual budgets. Our local tax base cannot absorb these dramatic cuts like downstate districts, especially considering the potential for drastic, double-digit tax increases in their property tax bills to make up the difference.
Adding further insult to injury, and delivering the final nail in the coffin for our schools, is unfunded mandates. An unfunded mandate is when state government tells localities, or school districts, to do something – such as starting or expanding a program, or providing a service – but refuses to provide any funding to pay for it. This translates to higher property taxes for families as our rural schools struggle to decide between providing essential educational programs for our children, or transportation services to get them to school. Through no fault but their own, Albany made the problem and they have to fix it.
We are at the beginning of a battle that is occurring on multiple fronts. Frankly, our schools are not prepared for what is to come unless serious amendments are made by the state and by the schools who ultimately administer their own costs. As negotiations progress, I will work to restore and provide additional education aid to our upstate schools in this year’s budget. I am asking the Governor to divert the $250 million that he has targeted for school district performance and efficiency grants, and provide further funding for the neediest school districts to avoid another round of catastrophic cuts to our education program. We owe it to our rural, upstate students to find opportunities for them that are otherwise enjoyed by wealthier districts. I am asking for the Governor’s leadership to right these inequities. I will do my part for our schools, but we all must do our part in order to save them.