Like a patient waiting to hear from the doctor about the outcome of medical tests, the city school district has been nervously sitting by the phone for months in anticipation of a call from the state. It came Monday when the district learned it would receive $30 million in additional state aid to nearly close its massive, $33 million budget deficit.
It was good news. Without the money, the Syracuse City School District faced a decimated and dismal future. District officials said up to 750 employees could have been laid off.
Unfortunately, this year's school aid resolution was a demonstration of two often-used adages: putting a Band-Aid on a gaping wound and robbing Peter to pay Paul.
The district was allowed to get what is known as a "spin-up" - an advance payment of $20 million in future lottery revenues. The district will repay that money, free of interest, through an annual reduction of its state aid over the next several decades. The other $10 million is a portion of an overall $740 million increase in state aid for public schools.
The problem is that the lottery money is a special, one-shot deal. The extra $20 million is not guaranteed every year. And since district and other officials maintain that the schools have been traditionally underfunded, the funding is still inadequate.
That's where state lawmakers come in - or rather, didn't come in. They should have already developed a long-term formula that equitably funded Syracuse and other high-needs school districts. Since they failed to do so, a court has taken over the job and will at least address the needs of New York City students, based on a lawsuit brought by the Campaign for Fiscal Equity. Syracuse and other districts hope that the resolution of the CFE lawsuit also will cover them. "It is our very strong belief that once CFE comes in, we will be made whole," said Cynthia Kirby, president of the Syracuse school board.
Perhaps. The court has appointed three special masters to determine how New York City schools will be equitably funded, but even the masters aren't sure whether they have the power to address the needs of all the state's students.
But Gov. George Pataki, Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver have the power. In fact, they and the rank-and-file legislators, who follow their every lead, have the duty to do something on behalf of all the state's students. They must come up with a plan, not just for the moment, but for the future.
File photo/Caroline Chen, 2002
NOTTINGHAM HIGH SCHOOL students rehearse at band practice. Instrumental music programs could have been eliminated from city schools. Color