Governor Cuomo’s 2018-2019 school aid proposal calls for an increase of about 3 percent or $769 million in total school aid. This is significantly lower than the $1.6 billion increase recommended by the Board of Regents. Many education organizations in the state have represented that an increase of about $1.5 billion is needed just to maintain current school programs and services.
Typically, the school aid increase adopted in the final state budget on or about March 31, is greater than the governor’s initial proposal but lower than the request from the Regents or the amounts advocated by education groups. While the 2018-2019 state budget is to be more challenging than previous years due to revenue shortfalls and budget gaps, the senate and assembly will negotiate with the governor’s office for needed increases in school aid for districts across the state to maintain current programs and student services.
Either way, any increase in aid below $1.5 billion will likely result in some cutbacks and hard choices for the states approximately 733 school districts and school boards as local budget cycles begins and conclude on May 15, 2018 with the annual budget votes. This lack of full monetary resources for districts to maintain programs and services funded through previous state aid increases will be disheartening to many school districts that have made improvements over the past few years. More troubling to school districts and school boards, however, may be the governor’s proposal to exert additional state control over the expenditure of education funds by certain school boards. The allocation of funds within districts to various needed budget expenditures on programs, staffing, collective bargaining agreements, facilities, equipment, administration, and other factors set by local decisions have traditionally been the responsibility of the school board and district residents. The school board and the superintendent with the district’s business official would propose a budget based upon needs, resources, and revenues. The proposal would then be debated in public and then placed before the voters of the respective district for final review and approval.
The governor’s plan would require the state’s largest school districts, as well as the districts with at least nine schools that receive at least half their total revenue from the state, to submit funding plans to the State Education Department and Budget Division for approval each year. A district that has not had its plan approved by the state would not receive its state aid increases. While the governor claims his plan will enhance equity by keeping school districts accountable to spend funds on its school evenly, this proposal also diminishes local authority and discretion of school boards in the state’s largest and highest need school districts. Obviously, this plan as part of the governor’s school aid proposal would create differences between school districts in regards to local authority and violate local control that school boards are entitled to when setting local school district budgets.
Many factors guide local school districts and communities in reviewing and setting local funding allocations. The system in New York has a tradition of being locally controlled with final budget review and approval needing endorsement from the voters of each of the respective 733 school districts prior to budget implementation. While the governor’s expressed intent of his plan is not to reduce local control, but to enhance equity, many education stakeholders have called into question the proposal’s sincerity in addressing equity among school districts and regions across the state.
Schenectady City School District Superintendent Larry Spring commented to the Times Union on the hypocrisy of the state now seeking equity in school funding by expanding state control over the school budget process. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” Superintendent Spring stated. “The state that distributes funding to districts in a way that ranks them 49th in the country for equity – they’re the ones that are going to become the equity police? The state that has the most segregated school system in in the country – they’re going to become the equity police? It doesn’t pass the sniff test.” He went on to comment that he has no problems with proposal to require districts to report school-level funding plans, but tying reports to state aid goes too far.
Rick Timbs, the executive director of the Statewide School Finance Consortium, was also direct on the potential violation of local control in regards to the governor’s proposal for increased state oversight on school aid funding and the setting of conditions for certain districts to receive their annual state aide increases. Mr. Timbs stated in Politico: “It appears there’s an overreach by government usurping local control. Considering it’s one of the most mandated and regulated industries in the state of New York, it’s just not necessary.”
On the other side of the argument, the governor’s proposal aligns to some degree with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). ESSA will require school districts to report school-level funding plans. While ESSA requires school-level funding reporting, the governor’s proposal goes further to incentive action by linking school aid increases to approval of district submitted budget plans. In support of the governor proposal to address these inequities, Ian Rosenblum, executive director of the Education Trust-New York, stated: “We hear anecdotal stories all the time about inequities across schools within a district. But there hasn’t been data to show, OK, where is this a systemic problem? So having a consistent uniform data-set on school level per-pupil funding and making sure that districts take steps to close any gaps is a big deal.”
This year the governor has not only proposed a relatively low increase in school aid, but has created an even higher profile issue in regards to changing local control over school budgets. Therefore, school boards and education stakeholders need to advocate for increases in the governor’s initial school aid amount as they have done traditionally. In addition, however, they must also focus on effectively responding to the governor’s budget plan that could diminish local control of school boards when setting local school district budgets, but perhaps promote equity in funding between schools within a district. The stakes for school boards in this current state budget process as to long term impact and ramifications on local control are at an all-time high.