Use state aid to make school districts more efficient
Reading a state Board of Regents report is never easy, with all the talk of assessments, outcomes, rubrics and other education gobbledygook. But the one presented at the board’s meeting last Monday, by its Committee on State Aid, was pretty clear: School districts, especially poor ones, are under huge fiscal stress thanks to reduced state aid, the state’s property tax cap, depleted reserve funds, and rising health and pension costs (the districts’ contributions for the latter will be going up 30 percent next year). And the committee doesn’t just explain the situation, it offers some sensible ideas that would provide a measure of relief.
More state aid to needy districts is one of them. It’s hard to blame the state for reducing school aid in recent years to deal with its own fiscal crisis, but that makes it all the more necessary to change the school-aid formula so needy districts with many hard-to-educate kids and small tax bases fare better compared to wealthier districts. Schenectady’s new school superintendent, Laurence Spring, forcefully made the case for such change last week, and it is one of the committee’s recommendations.
The committee also wants districts to save money by sharing services and consolidating, and the state to prod them with an assortment of carrots and sticks. For example, transportation is a major expense for school districts. Many own their own fleets that are idle most of the time. And the state encourages this by reimbursing most of the costs — as much as 90 percent in some cases. There’s plenty of scope for sharing bus runs, maintenance, fuel, etc., and the committee recommends using state transportation aid to make this happen.
The same for consolidations, only four of which have taken place in the last decade, despite there being 256 school districts in the state with fewer than 1,000 students.
Even though consolidating these districts, most of which are in low-wealth rural areas, could be better educationally (more money, more programs, more opportunities for kids), many residents are reluctant to give up their little district’s familiarity and identity. But another reason is money. Usually one district’s taxes will go down while the other’s will go up. The committee recommends using state aid to equalize the tax burden and encourage consolidation — and the threat of withholding it to do the same.
At the same time, for districts not interested in full consolidation, the committee recommends a half-step: having them keep their own elementary and middle schools but share a regional high school. It also recommends using state aid to encourage more regionalization through BOCES. And it recommends changing overly generous building-aid formulas that encourage expensive (sometimes unnecessary) construction projects, and focusing more on operational aid.
The Board of Regents is mainly concerned about academic quality issues, such things as testing, teacher evaluation, learning standards and common core curriculum. But it also knows that quality is seriously threatened at a time when resources are scarce for school districts. The Committee on State Aid will flesh out its conceptual ideas with details next month for the full board’s approval, and Gov. Cuomo and the Legislature should take them seriously.