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School funding changes possible

Cuomo: Poorer districts’ problems unique

Thursday, January 3, 2013
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— Small urban and needy rural school districts have reason to be hopeful about increased funding say local officials, in the wake of remarks from Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Wednesday.

The governor stressed the differences in needs and responsibilities between school districts in wealthy communities and those in distressed communities, following the unveiling at the state Capitol of his Education Reform Commission’s preliminary recommendations, which included more time in the classroom, consolidating districts and teacher competency exams.

Cuomo made the argument that schools in needy areas face far more responsibilities than schools in more affluent areas. Because of these varied functions, he said they should be defined differently so their needs could be met appropriately.

“Don’t compare their costs and don’t compare their staffing, because they’re apples and oranges,” he said, adding that the investment in school districts representing needy areas saves money down the road.

These observations are being regarded by some as a recognition by the governor that the way state aid is allocated should be changed.

“To me it sounds like the governor is recognizing that the job urban school districts have to do is very different than other places,” Schenectady City School District Superintendent Laurence Spring said. “I hope that would translate to an examination of how the state is progressing toward full funding of school districts.”

Schenectady and a collection of other small city school districts in the state argue that their funding is well below what is required by law.

Echoing comments Cuomo made about the services offered by schools in needy districts, Spring noted that one of the schools in his district provides dental cleanings and checkups to students. It’s issues like this, he said, that schools in a middle class or wealthy district never imagine dealing with or paying for.

Cuomo said these types of schools need a new name to illustrate all that they do. Spring said this is the right sentiment because defining the need is half of the funding battle.

Schoharie Central School District Superintendent Brian Sherman said Cuomo’s thinking could be applied to small rural school districts as well. He stressed that his kids have different needs from those in Niskayuna and said he agreed with the governor’s push to recognize this.

State Sen. Hugh Farley, R-Niskayuna, said the remarks from Cuomo are encouraging for poorer districts he represents. “We’ll have to wait and see what he has in the State of the State, but it sounds very interesting,” he said, citing the potential benefit for a school district like Schenectady.

The state’s budget process begins with Cuomo, so Farley said it will be up to him to get the ball moving. If the governor signals a willingness to tweak the formula for allocating aid or some other change that benefits needy districts, Farley said he would be ready to run with any provision that helped his district.

Assemblyman James Tedisco, R-Glenville, said Cuomo’s remarks sounded like he was open to changing the percentage of state aid for schools.

“It sounds to me like he understands that it can’t be a cookie cutter formula,” Tedisco said.

The one change Spring was wary of was awarding funding through state agency or department grants. He was worried that this might result in year-to-year funding, which would be helpful but would lack any predictability. That could come from changing the state aid formula.

On the whole, Spring characterized Cuomo’s remarks as extraordinarily constructive. Next Wednesday he’ll be listening with a careful ear to the governor’s State of the State address.

 
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