Mark Hare. Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. 12/7/2004.

Court-appointed referees have concluded that it will take $5.6 billion more in annual operating aid and $9.2 billion for facilities improvements to provide New York City children with the "sound basic education" guaranteed by the state constitution.

What about Rochester's schools? Or Buffalo's? Or Syracuse's?

We're out of luck, I guess.

I asked Mary Barnum, a retired city high school teacher who still works part-time with the Rochester Teachers Association, accompanying teachers who've been assaulted to court, what our kids would have if the district had more money. "It would buy for our kids whatever they have in Pittsford," she says. Specifically, she says, it would mean smaller classes, newer buildings and books.

"When they closed the oldMadison High School (in 1981)," she recalls, "there were 152 outstanding grievances for broken toilets and for heating malfunctions. A lot of our kids sit in classes with their coats on — and they and their parents know that doesn't happen in Penfield."

Money isn't a magic fix, she says, but without it, we're saying to kids that they just aren't worth what the kids in more affluent districts are worth.

The fate of New York City's aid package is now in the hands of the Manhattan justice who appointed the referees to come up with a solution only after the Legislature and Gov. George Pataki squandered more than a year failing to devise a formula that would guarantee adequate funding for all schools in the state.

The Campaign for Fiscal Equity, a coalition of education advocates, sued the state for failing to adequately fund New York City schools more than a decade ago. They won in June 2003, and the Court of Appeals gave Pataki and the Legislature 13 months to devise a plan of their own. They all agreed that — even though the CFE ruling did not require it — a remedy should address funding disparities statewide, if only to avoid a raft of CFE clone suits from other urban districts.

Couldn't do it.

This case should be good news for the poorest students in New York City — many of whom sit in crowded classrooms, in schools with no gyms and lousy heating or broken bathrooms, who come to school behind and never get the teaching resources they need to catch up. It's not quite that bad in upstate cities, but the discrepancies between the affluent and poor districts are stark, as is the performance gap.

But you'd be right to worry that the referees' recommendation could pit upstate against the city — improving New York City schools at the expense of Rochester, Buffalo, etc. The governor wants to add some video slot machines to produce up to $2 billion. The Citizens Budget Commission, a New York City think tank, says the state could come up with $750 million by cutting aid to the wealthiest districts and another $1.2 billion by making better use of city school buildings. Anyway you look at it, complying with the court order is going to cost a lot more money — money the state, facing a $6 billion deficit next year, doesn't have.

Meanwhile, many children in this state aren't getting what they need to succeed. And our leaders in Albany may be down to one last chance — to come up with a comprehensive state aid package that will add resources and shift resources and satisfy the court that it can deliver a "sound basic education" to all children. The alternative is to pay a boatload of money — and still leave lots of children behind. Including a lot of kids right here who may be wearing coats inside to stay warm this winter.