Legislators, school districts fired up about bullet aid
Biting the bullet
CAPITAL REGION Despite the widely discussed inequity in Schenectady’s state school aid, the district’s new legislator did not nominate it for additional funding this year.
Phil Steck, D-Colonie, asked that all his extra aid — dubbed “bullet aid” — be given to Niskayuna. Instead, it was given to the two districts in his home town of Colonie.
He said Friday that he had initially asked the Assembly’s Ways and Means Committee to send 40 percent of his bullet aid to Schenectady. But once the general school aid figures came out, he changed his mind, asking for all his aid to go to Niskayuna.
Niskayuna got a 0.75 percent increase in general aid, while Schenectady got a 5.22 percent increase. North Colonie got a 1.79 percent increase, and Steck said that was unfair to Niskayuna.
“They shouldn’t be getting less than North Colonie got,” he said. “Should Schenectady be increased more? Yes, they should be.”
But, he said, Niskayuna needed more funding.
“I don’t think it’s appropriate for Niskayuna to have to combine grades and close schools. That’s not what Niskayuna is about. That’s a community that, in all fairness, people move there for the schools,” he said.
He couldn’t explain why the North and South Colonie school districts got the aid instead. Each got $50,000, a relatively small amount of money. Niskayuna and Schenectady did not get any bullet aid.
Steck said he suspected the Colonie districts were given aid simply because they are in his hometown, no matter what he requested. Steck lives in the North Colonie district.
He said he had no control over how the Ways and Means Committee gave out the aid.
“Obviously I’m going to try to convince them that I am the person who knows these communities best,” he said.
He said he told the committee to give aid to Niskayuna and not Schenectady because of Niskayuna’s need. He noted that Schenectady gets more aid in total dollars than Niskayuna — $73 million to $10 million — and got a much larger aid increase this year.
“I understand the problems in Schenectady,” he said, “but we have a successful system in Niskayuna. I don’t believe that the correct approach here is to take from a successful district and make it worse in order to help a system that needs help.”
Both the Niskayuna and Schenectady school boards are considering major cuts in their budgets, so any extra funds would help. Steck is hopeful the districts will receive bullet aid from the Senate. Those figures have not yet been announced and may not be released until months after the districts set their budgets.
At a meeting with the Schenectady school board on Wednesday, Steck said the state simply doesn’t have the money to give school districts all the help they need.
“Schenectady is the worst, but all of my districts are underfunded,” he said, arguing that other districts are getting 68 percent of the aid they were supposed to get through a court settlement. Schenectady is getting 54 percent of its aid.
Board President Cathy Lewis quickly asked, “Can we get to the best of the worst?”
Steck said there isn’t enough money to fund every school district as ordered in the court settlement.
“That foundation aid was never fully funded,” he said. “It’s not like that money is just sitting there.”
He said he will support a 1 percent tax increase on those making $500,000 to $2 million.
“In order to achieve what [Schenectady Superintendent] Larry [Spring] is talking about, the state is going to have to generate more revenue,” he said.
But school board members asked him to redirect the current aid, noting that some districts are getting more than 100 percent of the aid required in the court settlement. Steck said legislators were blocking such efforts in favor of sending more money to their school districts, regardless of need.
“A lot of the money is going to Long Island,” he said, calling it “extortion.”
“People refuse to do anything unless you give them money for their areas,” he said. “I think until that dynamic is changed, we’re going to continue to see this historic problem.”
After the bullet aid was announced, Spring said he was “deeply disappointed” but not surprised that Schenectady wasn’t included. He said legislators were happy to see Schenectady get the same aid as other districts — instead of wanting it to get more.
Keeping every district at about the same aid increase doesn’t address inequity, he said.
“It preserves the haves and have-nots,” he said. “In general, the legislative process seems to be very concerned in equity on the percentage increase, which means they’re very concerned about continuing the inequity.”
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