New York has a court decision ordering it to change the way it funds local schools, but that didn't stop lawmakers from divvying up this year's money pretty much the way they always have.
In the budget adopted Thursday by the Legislature, nearly every district got more money than last fiscal year and the regional distribution remained the same: 38 percent of the $848 million increase goes to New York City, 12 percent to Long Island and 50 percent to the rest of the state. It stayed the same because Senate Republicans fought to maintain the traditional split.
"They've gone right back to that, and that's a travesty," said Michael Rebell, director of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, the New York City group that won a court order to overhaul funding for the Big Apple's schools. The organization is pushing for a school-funding formula based strictly on the needs of schools, which would send more to poor districts.
The Court of Appeals said in a landmark 2003 decision that the traditional distribution of school funding had produced an unconstitutional result: New York City schools did not receive enough money to offer students the "sound, basic education" guaranteed under the state constitution.
The court gave state lawmakers 13 months to fix the problem, but they did not. So the case went back to a Manhattan judge, who ordered the state to double the funding for New York City, and Gov. George Pataki appealed.
So for this year's state budget, it was back to business as usual, mostly.
Pataki had proposed a larger share for New York City and a special fund to send extra money to other needy school districts.
Senate and Assembly members tussled over the issue in public meetings, and in the end they reached a decision behind closed doors to keep the regional shares the same, always a top priority of Senate Republicans. They added $322 million to Pataki's $526 million increase in school funding, bumping the total to $16.2 billion.
"The lower level of funding in the governor's budget would have placed a financial burden on our local homeowners and businesses," said Senate Education Committee Chairman Stephen Saland, R-Poughkeepsie.
Lawmakers did try to help New York City and other urban districts by reimbursing them more generously in future years for school construction projects.
And the budget departed from past budgets in one critical respect it was finished on time, by the April 1 start of the fiscal year. That helps school districts plan their local budgets in time for public votes in May.
"Knowing what 50 percent of your revenue looks like before voting on your budget is probably a good thing," said Tom Rogers, director of the Council of School Superintendents.