School officials wary of Cuomo's plan for state to check school-level funding
On Board Online • February 5, 2018
By Cathy Woodruff
Gov. Andrew Cuomo says he wants to ensure that local school districts are distributing funding fairly among individual school buildings.
"Trickle-down economics doesn't work, nor does trickle-down education funding," the governor declared in his State of the State address on Jan. 3. "Local districts must give more funding to their poorer schools, period. That's only right, and that's only fair."
Under the governor's plan, state officials would review school building-level spending plans in some districts. In the event that a district does not obtain approval from state officials, it would be ineligible to receive its state aid increase for that school year.
The plan has supporters and detractors.
The New York arm of The Education Trust has endorsed the plan, saying it would prevent districts from short-changing schools that serve many low-income students, students of color, English language learners, homeless students or students with disabilities. Those students need strong teachers, advanced coursework, professional staff such as counselors and librarians, and other resources, said Ian Rosenblum, executive director of The Education Trust-New York.
NYSSBA opposes the proposal.
"It's overreach," said NYSSBA Executive Director Timothy G. Kremer. "It threatens the authority of locally elected school boards and the voters who put them in those roles. School boards and other school leaders best know the needs of their districts."
However, Kremer said, the issue of equity is important and should be vigorously pursued at the local level.
Superintendents see flaws in approach
Local officials say the threat of withholding state aid seems draconian.
"That's a punitive approach," Binghamton Superintendent Tonia Thompson told On Board. "It's not an approach of support and understanding."
Vernon Connors, school business official for the Jamestown City School District, said Cuomo's proposal sparked flashbacks to his time working in the Rochester City School District when a state reporting system called the Contract for Excellence (C4E) was enacted in 2007.
"It was a nightmare I thought I'd never have to relive again," Connors told On Board.
The accounting processes required to comply with C4E were complex, he recalled, and the reporting structure changed from one year to the next.
"I have a lot of concerns," he said of the governor's new proposal. "My fears are that they will repeat the mistakes and not have learned the lessons from the old Contract for Excellence."
In Jamestown, Connors said, district leaders take care to distribute their educational resources as efficiently and effectively as they can among their nine school buildings, which include five elementary schools. That effort can produce per-school funding distributions that might look uneven on paper.
For instance, Jamestown locates some programs serving higher-needs students - such as English as a new language (ENL) students or students with learning disabilities - in a handful of schools, rather than in every elementary school. That helps the district cope with scant supplies of teachers in high-demand fields, he said, and the district's compact geographic footprint keeps crosstown bus trips manageable for students.
"If you look at what students' needs are, we are meeting them," he said. "And this is probably the best way to do it."
School districts often are limited by collective bargaining agreements in their ability to move staff, school officials noted. That means a school with many senior teachers probably would have more spending per student than another school with less experienced staff. Such circumstances would cloud any attempt to compare building-level spending.
"We recognize the needs of our students and our community," said Thompson, the Binghamton superintendent. Trying to craft a fair and accurate way of comparing spending by all 10 schools in her district, she said, sounds "futile."
Per-school funding disclosures required under ESSA
Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia struck a cautious tone when discussing the governor's proposed school-based budgeting mandate, which is included in his executive budget plan for 2018-19.
"I think that there are some concerns, clearly, about someone from State Ed and/or the Division of Budget, separated from a school and their community, saying 'You can't do something in your budget,'" Elia told reporters in January.
She noted that New York's recently approved accountability plan under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) already adds new financial transparency provisions that will require all districts to report on school-level funding.
In addition, she said, several types of state and federal funding already are earmarked for specific purposes and tied to strict reporting requirements.
"We have funding that goes into districts, and they have to have a plan to say how they're going to use the funding," Elia said. "There are many ways that we do already have input in the funding that goes into the districts from SED or pass-through money that goes in from the federal government."