Midstate School Finance Consortium Sees 2002 As Decisive Year
For School Funding Reform In New York State
Current State School Aid Formula under fire on all fronts;
Recent developments indicate "The clock is ticking in Albany".
January 15, 2002 - A number of recent developments suggest that Albany may finally be forced to change the state's unfair method of paying for its schools according to the Midstate School Finance Consortium, a statewide group that has developed a simpler, more equitable school aid formula.
The state's funding method has been the focus of reform efforts since the early 1940s. Last year, the State Supreme Court declared New York's current school aid formula unconstitutional in the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit. However, the state is now appealing that decision, once again putting off the time when it must finally address the long-standing problem.
"If the Legislature and Governor don't act, we're worried the courts eventually will," says Brandon Gordon, recently named director of the Midstate Consortium. "The judge in the CFE decision directed the state to devise a new school aid formula that's fair to all the school districts in the state. But this must be done now. Otherwise, we fear that a subsequent court case in some future year could impose a much narrower solution. People are increasingly worried this could benefit only a few school districts at the expense of all the others, as happened in Vermont."
In addition to the impact of the court decision, Gordon points to other recent developments:
Midstate Consortium membership has exploded in the last few months, which now includes its first members in the Capital District. [See map] "We're up from 218 last summer to 273 school districts and 19 BOCES from more than 30 counties, with the support and endorsements of dozens of business and civic groups around the state. Our website - www.midstateonline.org - is just swarming with visitors," says Gordon.
In December, New York State's Regents offered their proposal to alter the way state aid flows to schools. Following many of the core principles of the Midstate plan, it includes similar provisions regarding fairness and equity, simplicity and predictability.
The December 21, 2001 New York Times reported "the Regents' plan was greeted positively yesterday by Gov. George E. Pataki and Joseph L. Bruno, the State Senate majority leader, who said the Republican-dominated Senate was "wide open" to a more equitable way of distributing aid."
On January 9, during his State of the State Address, Governor Pataki said "We need to... throw out the existing school aid formula and to achieve equity - without pitting one school district against another. This year, we should answer that call." Education Commissioner Richard Mills agreed: "He signaled very clearly that we need to change the state aid system." Even Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver heard the call and responded "We will work to find a better and fairer way to fund our public schools."
For the second time this year, on November 28 the Buffalo News strongly and persuasively editorialized in favor of the Midstate Consortium proposal. The Buffalo school system, currently facing fiscal crisis, now confronts laying off 557 employees - 433 of them teachers.
In its editorial, the Buffalo News said: "Although the events of Sept. 11 brought the problems of school funding to the fore, the failure of the state to fairly fund education in urban districts was a crisis waiting to happen. The school aid formula is, at best, archaic, and, at worst, discriminatory."
"Rather than continue to battle for a system that clearly fails many urban children, the governor would be better off pursuing solutions, such as a proposal by the Midstate School Finance Consortium ... the group has proposed a simplified formula that would increase school aid for poorer districts. According to the consortium, in recent years the state's school aid formula has been sending increases in state aid to wealthier districts while shrinking aid increases to poorer districts."
The News' editorial added "...there's no question that the mistakes of the past - poor leadership, bad fiscal decisions and an over-reliance on state aid - have contributed to the mess the school system now finds itself in. Nevertheless, while Pataki understandably has his hands full following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, he still must address another crisis that is the state school funding formula."
On December 18, gubernatorial candidate Carl McCall distributed a letter outlining his education policy: "My goal is to guarantee every district in the State enough resources to support a good education, and no district should have to have an excessive tax rate to afford this. In fact, districts across the State have been devastated by the State's inequitable aid formula... That's not a recipe for success or economic growth. School aid reform will not only help poor school districts. Under a clear, equitable aid formula, free from political calculation, every district will know how much aid it will receive in advance, without having to wait for each year's budget gyrations. Every year, late state budgets leave both rich and poor school districts in the lurch, scrambling to guess how much aid they'll receive while they attempt to plan programs and levy taxes responsibly."
On October 25, speaking before an array of school reform groups in New York City, Midstate Consortium director Gordon told the audience "New York City does not stand alone
the problems that you and your children face here in New York City are the same problems that children, parents, and taxpayers have all over the state." A very positive reaction to these remarks generated strong support and a number of new alliances for the Midstate proposal, suggesting once again that a true statewide solution is possible - and desirable.
The Albany budget fiasco of 2001 was more than just another year of embarrassment for the Empire State. While causing confusion, uncertainty and extra costs for school districts everywhere, Consortium members believe it has also sown the seeds for yet another property tax meltdown in the foreseeable future.
School districts, by law, submit their budgets for voter approval in May. In recent years, lack of a state budget meant school budgets could only be based on assumptions [guesses, in other words] about how much state aid each district would actually receive. In 2001, the budget wasn't finalized until after tax bills had already been sent out. Many districts were forced to raise taxes or eliminate programs after their voters had approved school budgets.
"Last year, the state never passed a full budget. In many districts, local property taxpayers were left holding the proverbial bag," says Robert Smith, Superintendent of Dolgeville Central School District and one of the Midstate Consortium's founders. "Taxpayers' anger at local school officials should really be directed at Albany."
"The current school aid formula is not one formula - it's an insane Rube Goldberg patchwork that's now 70 full pages of formulas, rules, regulations procedures and other political and bureaucratic nonsense that has had 'fix' after 'fix' after 'fix' slapped onto it for nearly sixty years," explains Smith. "In recent years, the state has been flush with tax revenues so the fixes consisted of papering over inequities with more money. But after September 11, that's just no longer realistic."
The Midstate School Finance Consortium was formed in 1991 and presently includes as members 273 school districts and 19 BOCES across more than 30 New York counties. With most of Central and Western New York blanketed, the first members from the Capital District region recently joined, as the reform movement spreads statewide.
The Consortium's sole purpose is to speak with one voice in joining with overburdened taxpayers to ask the Legislature and Governor to drastically reform the system of financing public schools.
For complete information on the Midstate Consortium, its members and its proposal for comprehensive school funding reform, visit www.midstateonline.org. The website is regularly updated with new information.
Brandon Gordon recently came to the Midstate Consortium as its first fulltime director from a post as development officer at Syracuse University, where he managed the development and alumni relations program for the University's largest academic unit.
Prior to his work there, he served first as congressional aide, later as deputy campaign manager for U.S. Congressman Thomas J. Downey of Long Island. Earlier, Gordon served as campaign coordinator for Long Island Congressman Robert J. Mrazek, and as field coordinator for The Population Institute, Washington, D.C. He is a 1989 graduate of State University of New York at Geneseo and earned his M.S. in Higher Education Administration at Syracuse University in 1995. He is active in Big Brothers Big Sisters of Onondaga County as a volunteer Big Brother and member of the BBBS Advisory Board, and was recognized as Big Brother of the Year in 1998.