Charisse Williams has only lived in Utica for four years, but she's already learned a great lesson about the city school system in which her daughter, Corinthia, 13, is enrolled.
The district doesn't have the resources to teach well something as basic as reading skills, she says. Corinthia strives to learn math in a classroom with nearly 30 students.
Her mom, like school officials in Utica and elsewhere in the Mohawk Valley, blames the state's system for handing out state aid to school districts, a system variously referred to as complicated, convoluted and nearly impossible to understand.
Williams is one of more than 30 people who became plaintiffs in the Utica school district's lawsuit filed last year to rework the state aid formula.
"They're not getting the money they need," she said of Utica schools. "They're trying, but they don't really have the adequate funds to implement the programs they need."
As parents like Williams have found, change comes slowly, if at all. Another state budget year has come and gone, but no steps have been taken in Albany to repair the state's aid formula. Heated debates, lawsuits, even the recommendations of a court-appointed panel have failed to prompt the governor and state Legislature to act.
State Sen. Raymond Meier, R-Western, compares the prospect of change to " a difficult battle."
"We really need to get to something more simple and ask 'What does it cost to educate a child?'" he said.
Currently, aid figures are unbalanced:
* Poor urban districts such as Utica receive -- and spend -- amounts that seem puny compared to what suburban districts get.
* Many downstate suburban districts fare far better than upstate districts, making it challenging for even the best New Hartford and Clinton graduates to compete with students whose schools offered better computers and fancier science labs.
* And even within the Mohawk Valley, there are disparities. The Rome City School District continues to get aid at levels protecting it from the full force of the loss of Griffiss Air Force Base 10 years ago -- and the loss of all those former residents once associated with
To Utica school officials, it seems unfair that Rome's aid has been protected at a certain level, even as Utica with its school population of poor students and non-English speakers scrapes for funds.
Looking at grade reports at Donovan Middle School where her daughter attends, Williams laments that the majority of students are below average in reading and math.
"That needs to be addressed," Williams said.
Utica Superintendent Daniel Lowengard, who will leave his position at year's end, has made straightening out the aid formula a crusade of sorts. He's begun pointing out the inequities and gaps that are hurting Utica students, even putting together a report earlier this year highlighting differences between local districts.
According to Lowengard, money should be targeted at districts that are furthest behind. Instead, the state has perpetuated a system where there are rich districts and poor districts, he said.
"They have generated new money, but the money has gone in the same old places," Lowengard said. "Nothing has really changed."
The results, some educators say, are completely different learning environments for students.
A Clinton Elementary School class might have only 16 students, whereas one at Watson Williams Elementary School in Utica might have 28. Textbooks might be newer in, say, a Westchester County school than in Sauquoit Valley. And state standardized test scores tend to be lower in underfunded districts.
While the formula hurts a wide range of districts, leaders might be resistant to changing the formula because more districts are benefiting than being hurt by formula, Lowengard said.
"The problem is no one thinks they're wealthy," he said. "No one thinks they're getting enough. Everyone believes that they're not spending enough on education."
But clearly there are places spending more than Utica. Its combined wealth ratio -- a factor calculated by the state Education Department based on income and property wealth --is only 39 percent of the state's average wealth ratio.
The district's per pupil expenditure, $9,373 lags far behind the state average of $13,000. Further, it cites a laundry-list of maladies: inadequate textbooks and technological support, overcrowded conditions, an inability to give adequate attention to the core curriculum, class sizes too large for many "high need" students, inadequate programs for art music and athletics and a lack of remedial instruction.
Brandon Gordon, executive director of the Midstate Finance Educational Consortium, a lobbying group that represents more than 250 upstate districts, cites overwhelming regional disparities that have left Upstate New York taxpayers with higher property taxes and upstate students with less access to art and advanced placement courses.
"Some districts downstate have more than double or triple the average district and they're still getting really large increases," Gordon said. "Shouldn't state aid go to those that need the most help first? That's not happening."
A key factor in the maintenance of the status quo is a term that education bureaucrats refer to as "save harmless." As Burt Porter, director of education finance for the state Education Department, explains it, districts that lose students or gain wealth are kept "save harmless" so that they don't lose state aid.
But what happens is that districts with increasing enrollment or poorer populations aren't seeing the gains they need, particularly year after year.
"Over time, that gap gets worse and worse," Porter said.
The state's funding formula was ruled unconstitutional two years ago as it applies to New York City in the landmark Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit. It is also under fire in a lawsuit filed by 15 small city school districts across the state.
Utica -- where there is always a question about the budget, where there is always a worst-case scenario plan in the offing, and where the student population has increased approximately 350 students since 2001 -- last year filed its own lawsuit.
It alleges the state aid formula "denies the students of the Utica City School District their constitutional rights to equal educational opportunities to receive a sound basic education."
In neighboring New Hartford, Mary Hayes Gordon, a PTA member and mother of three teenagers, agrees the formula needs to be revamped.
"They need to fund the schools equitably," she said. "However, they're doing their formula, it's not working. Not only do the schools not get an equitable funding, it's made much more difficult because they don't know the amount of state aid they'll receive until after they prepare their budget."
In Rome, which has lost 2,000 students since the Air Force closed its base in 1995, the save-harmless provision has allowed the district to continue getting aid despite the enrollment drop. If the formula were being followed to the exact letter, Rome could be getting $7 million less than it does, according to the state Education Department's aid reports.
Utica, on the other hand, could be getting $10 million more than it does.
In essence, the Midstate consortium's Brandon Gordon said, the state has a system where the aid is no longer flowing according to any formula at all.
"It doesn't treat every child the same, it doesn't treat every taxpayer the same," he said.
Gov. George Pataki has called for change, as he did in his budget address delivered in January 2004 when he stated the need to throw out the existing system was evident and replace it with one that was "fair, sustainable, and understandable."
The situation, which has left several districts hoping for millions to close budget gaps, might be one of perception, said the Education Department's Porter.
"The fact is that New York state is consistently in the top 2 or 3 states per pupil expenditures," he said. "Others feel we're spending a lot of money, but we're not spending it in the right place."
Peter Constantakes, a spokesman for the state Division of the Budget, said correcting the concerns about state funding is a work in progress.
"The governor is committed to education," Constantakes said. "The governor increased state aid by 800 million dollars. They are still discussing ways to make additional reforms. The process is ongoing to ensure that all districts get the assistance that they need."
Assemblywoman RoAnn Destito, D-Rome, a vocal critic of the governor's education programs, said the governor's rhetoric hasn't matched action.
"You need a willing partner in the governor," Destito said. "If the governor continually fights a decision that says more resources are needed, you're starting off at a point where you're not going to see much change. When you're starting in a deficit situation and having to make up dollars districts are already entitled to, you're just making up for the cuts."
Meier, the state senator, said the current formula is so out of whack, it needs to be replaced, not changed.
"Some areas don't do well. Others do well," he said. "That sets up obvious resistance to replacing the formula."
But for parents like Charisse Williams, the lack of change leaves a sense of disappointment.
"There's just not enough," she said.
3 consequences of school funding inequities
1. Districts that spend less per pupil tend to employ fewer social workers, psychologists, nurses and social workers.
Thomas R. Proctor Senior High School Principal Ronald Mancuso is predicting an increase in students for the 2005-06 school year -- from 2,400 to 2,597 students.
The high school has 8 counselors.
2. The Educational Leadership Institute, based in East Syracuse, conducted a study showing districts with less state aid per pupil offer fewer Advanced Placement courses, which are a steppingstone to college.
Ann Turner, superintendent of the Remsen Central School District, said her district currently offers only 4 Advanced Placement courses.
3. The Utica district has added hundreds of students in recent years. The result are large class sizes.
Utica's elementary schools have average class sizes approaching 25 students. At Marcy Elementary School in the Whitesboro district, elementary class sizes are closer to 16 students.
"Improved class sizes will improve student achievement," said Theresa Munski, a Utica assistant superintendent.