Farley's argument on school aid equity doesn't cut it
Whose side is Sen. Hugh Farley on, anyway? Aren’t taxpayers in the troubled Schenectady City School District his constituents? So what’s he doing telling them, in Friday’s Gazette story, that they shouldn’t bother writing him or others in state government about the district’s financial plight?
Farley is absolutely right that high taxes are a concern in Schenectady. But didn’t it ever occur to him that one of the reasons they’re so high is that the district, which has so many low-income families, hasn’t gotten its fair share of state aid under a formula that was crafted in 2007 in response to a court order and has since been ignored by the Legislature? That includes Farley, now the Senate’s longest-tenured member.
Shortly after Laurence Spring took over as Schenectady’s superintendent this year, he realized that not only has his district been getting shortchanged — it receives but 54 percent of what it’s supposed to under the so-called Foundation Aid Formula — a number of wealthy school districts around the state have been getting far more than they’re due. So he’s clamoring for the state to rebalance the scales a little — who can blame him? — and has been trying to enlist the support of local legislators and constituents in his quest.
That’s understandable, too, except that Farley has refused to even meet with him for months, and when asked “what gives?” by a reporter, could only repeat the Republican mantra about taxes being too high (implying that the district spends too much money) and that rural districts are more deserving.
This shouldn’t be an us-against-them argument, pitting large against small or urban against rural. It should be about fairness — poor vs. rich, as measured by a generally accepted yardstick like the combined wealth ratio, which is an average of property value and income per pupil. That’s what the state’s formula does, and in terms of wealth, it finds Schenectady at rock-bottom among the Capital Region’s 24 school districts.
So it seems altogether reasonable to ask why the district is getting the smallest percentage of its entitlement while wealthier districts in the region, like Burnt Hills (89 percent) and Guilderland (73 percent), are getting so much more, and some districts in the state are actually getting more than 100 percent.
While Farley isn’t wrong to be concerned about children in rural districts not getting proper instruction in things like art, music and language, the issue of large numbers of Schenectady kids not being able to read at grade level — thanks, in part, to reading program cuts in recent years — and being branded as emotionally disturbed — thanks, in part, to counseling program cuts — seems far more serious.
An influential leader like Farley should have been going to bat for his district long before this, not shrugging his shoulders and waiting for the governor to set the terms of the debate every year. Taxpayers in all underfunded school districts should be making noise about this.