EDITORIAL: More on state school aid

SCHOOL DISTRICTS HAVE had a month to digest the implications of the executive budget. Now some have heartburn. The plan lays out what Governor Cuomo proposes spending in the 2013-14 fiscal year and where the money will come from. In it the governor promises that on average school districts would see a 4% increase in funding. Some local school districts say they’ll get zilch.

Nobody but math nerds understands the complex formulas used to determine how much a each district will get, a topic already discussed here a couple of weeks ago. But the assertion that districts would see increases over what they received in last year’s state budget has raised the hackles of administrators in local districts because of state comparisons of funding one year to the next. They believe those figures mask the reality that the governor’s plan would provide little or no new funding in the next school year.

The biggest slice of state aid to education is the category called foundation aid–money school districts can spend as they see fit. For each district that amount would not change despite a modest rise in the cost of living. That leaves a number of other categories like special education and transportation costs for which the state reimburses districts for some of what they spend. Here’s where creative accounting comes in and where the whole issue of state aid gets really murky.
Some districts have managed to achieve big savings. Chatham, for instance, expects to see a $40,000 reduction in its electricity bill after negotiating a better price, and a $30,000 drop in telephone expenses by installing a modern system that uses the Internet. These savings and others like them mean either a smaller overall school district budget or a decision by the school board to use the money saved for other purposes.
Districts that cut costs also receive less state reimbursement. The state sees this as a win-win situation, and the state is right. Efficiencies like the ones in Chatham mean less state tax money spent on state aid and lower operating costs for local taxpayers to bear. But districts are finding that some of what the state calls savings aren’t really what they seem.
In her column this week in The Columbia Paper, Hudson City School District Superintendent Maria Suttmeier offers an example. Her district thought it would get $19.8 million in state aid during the current fiscal year, but the district now expects to receive only about $19.2 million when the fiscal year ends next month. So her district actually got 3.21% less state funding than it expected.
For the school year ahead the state says Hudson will get a 3% overall increase in state aid. But wait a minute. As Ms. Suttmeier points out, the state calculated the “increase” based on what the state actually paid and not what it originally promised. So the state aid for the total district in the new school year will be less than the district was promised (and didn’t get) in the current year. Meanwhile the governor gets to crow about increasing school funding.
Part of the problem is timing. School districts have to file reports of their spending with the state before the governor’s office prepares the executive budget, so there’s a whole quarter of the year for which expenses and revenues are only projections. But it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that what’s really going on here is an effort to put a positive spin on bad news for schools and those who pay property taxes that support public education.
The state doesn’t have much money to throw at the problem and neither do most taxpayers. But is seems silly to ignore or–if you believe the numbers crunchers–to punish districts for becoming more efficient. Instead the state should offer incentives that encourage even more savings. How would you do that? Don’t cut the reimbursements as much or as fast when schools demonstrate their ability to reduce costs.
That won’t solve the funding crisis we face, but it would signal the public and the districts that the state’s on their side.
As it is, improving education at a price we can afford seems like it’s too big a challenge for any governor. That could explain why Andrew Cuomo, normally an effective activist as the state’s chief executive, is falling into the pattern of his predecessors, raising expectations and hoping nobody notices when the numbers don’t add up.

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