Marshand Boone. Utica Observer-Dispatch. 3/24/2005.

 

Thomas R. Proctor Senior High School baseball coach Dave Guido, right, works with his players Wednesday in the school gymnasium. Catching is Vin Brescia and running the bases at rear is Joe Caruso. The Utica school district is facing a $6.5 million hole in its budget for the next school year, which could mean some programs -- including sports -- might have to be cut.  

  

Schools underfunded by New York's current school-aid funding formula could soon experience relief if a new statewide reform bill is passed, education advocates said.


Representatives from the Alliance for Quality Education and the Campaign for Fiscal Equity -- the group that prevailed in the 2003 ruling that found New York City school had been underfunded by the governor and Legislature -- along with Utica school officials will be on hand today to discuss the bill during a meeting at James H. Donovan Middle School.


The proposed legislation, the Schools for New York's Future Act, would revise the school-aid formula so that districts with highest need get the most aid.


The bill calls for a simplified formula with a base level of funding at $8,000 per pupil, with additional resources provided for schools with high rates of poverty, children with disabilities and English language learners.


In Utica -- which received $5,897 from the state per pupil for the current school year -- the bill has an avid supporter in Utica Superintendent Daniel Lowengard.


The additional resources ensured by the passage of the bill, for example, would allow the Utica school district to hire more teachers, which translates into smaller class sizes.


Extra funding also would secure existing programs such as arts, music and sports. And activities such as JROTC would be spared falling to budget cuts.


Lowengard said Utica -- a high-needs district where 13 percent of students are English language learners, 14 percent of students are in special education, and where more than 70 percent of students receive free or reduced lunch -- has been repeatedly shortchanged by the current funding formula.


"The formula has never worked for urban areas unless you had some political power that drove extra money into your district," Lowengard said. "But there were good years and bad years. In the good years, there was enough to survive. In bad years, you got destroyed."


For Utica, there have been more bad years than good. The city filed a lawsuit against the state last summer that claimed chronic underfunding, and is currently facing a $6.5 million hole in its budget for next school year.


Lowengard said the central message to lawmakers is simple: "All we're saying is figure out a formula that's fair for every kid."


He is hopeful that after the CFE victory, an equitable statewide solution will gain momentum.


"It's not just about being fair to kids. It's about being fair to taxpayers. Many small cities are overtaxing residents because they don't get equitable share of state aid," he said.


Aid based on 'political deals'


Bob Cohen, a spokesman for the Alliance for Quality Education, said districts such as Utica have suffered because of political deals between state legislators that give a fixed percentage share to different parts of the state.


"We know the problems of Utica and other districts are due in part to the fact that they don't get their fair share of education funding from the state," Cohen said. "It's ridiculous and unfair that one school district's state aid is based on a political deal giving them a fixed percentage share rather than basing aid on the relative level of student need."


Cohen said the problem has worsened over the last two years since the Campaign for Fiscal Equality decision in 2003 because the governor, assembly and senate simply can't agree on the amount necessary to fund the court decision.


"We have been critical of the senate in that they've put in less aid than they normally would have and refuse to propose a formula that would address the needs of high-need districts like Utica," he said. "They also are failing to propose a new school aid formula that would provide more rationality and fairness to the system and would address the needs of high need school districts."


Samira Ahmed, deputy director of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, said the current system reflects the basic failure of elected officials to uphold the constitutional promise that all children will receive a sound basic education.


"New York's future is in our schools," Ahmed said. "We believe they need to remedy the system today. The governor and Legislature need to work together to find a solution this year. They need to act now so we can have educational justice for our kids across the state."


Ahmed said she was eager to see immediate action in Albany.


"Our system is broken and this is the way to fix it," she said. "I don't know why they would want to drag their heels.


But, according to Senator Raymond Meier, R-Western, an appropriate solution is not the Schools for New York's Future Act.


Meier said an adequate amount of money would be provided over the next couple of years, but had severe criticism of the bill, largely because it directs a majority of funding to New York City schools.


"Anybody can throw numbers around," he said. "It's a question of how you pay for it. "People in Utica have stepped up to the plate with increases in local taxes," Meier said. "New York City makes the case it needs more money, but they need to contribute more local taxes. Over the last five years, the city has cut back the amount money it contributes to its school district."