ASHVILLE - Chautauqua County superintendents and board members met recently at BOCES Hewes Center for the annual Chautauqua County School Board Association's legislative breakfast. The event allows school administrators to pose questions to state legislators regarding the challenges that their districts are facing.
Sen. Catharine Young, R-Olean, and Assemblyman Andrew Goodell, R-Chautauqua County, were on hand to answer 14 total questions from individual school districts and the CCSBA.
As in previous years, the questions and comments made by the school districts focused on issues such as: high school regionalization, the property tax cap, the funding gap between wealthy and poor districts, and the foundation aid formula.
The current foundation aid formula was enacted by the state under Gov. Eliot Spitzer's administration in 2007 in response to a Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit. It consolidated approximately 30 categories of aid, and was intended to phase in more than $5 billion in new operating over a four-year period. That formula was frozen in the 2009-10 school year, leaving schools at or below their state aid levels from three years ago, with no additional funding since, and has remained unchanged.
"How does the legislature not follow the judicial checks and balances on this case? I have a hard time with that," said Ray Fashano, executive director of the CCSBA. "In other words, the CFE ruled that (the education system is) not providing a 'sound, basic education,' so Spitzer's regime comes in and redoes the foundation aid. Then it stays frozen for several years, when the law said you have to correct the problem. The problem still hasn't been corrected, has it? I don't know how we can violate our own (state) constitution, I think we do it every day that the state aid formulas are not fixed."
PROBLEMS AND ... SOLUTIONS?
The problem of inequitable foundation aid forced a larger issue - the rising number of unfunded mandates and the districts' increasing inability to pay for them.
Preliminary proposals, made by the Education Reform Commission and presented by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in his State of the State address last week, offer several promising notions for the improvement of the state's education system. However, the commission and the governor have provided little to no means for funding these proposals.
A question posed by the Panama Central School representatives referenced a survey conducted by the New York State Council of School Superintendents, which revealed that 5 percent of school districts are already unable to afford the mandates. Nine percent, or 60 districts, are within two years of financial insolvency and 41 percent of district foresee financial insolvency within four years.
"I am frustrated about mandate relief," said Sen. Young. "I think that there are mandates that make sense to adjust. The question is: can you get the governor and the Assembly majority there? It's been extremely difficult. For the past two years, (the Senate has) put forth $1 billion worth of ideas of mandate relief and we tried to work with the governor and the Assembly to try to get some of that list done. Last year, we were only able to get about $25 million in mandate relief. That falls far short of where we need to go, but we're not going to give up on that."
She added: "I don't think that the state would allow a school district to go bankrupt, but I know that there are districts that are very precarious now because they've had to spend down their fund balances. So I guess the answer is, partially, that we've just got to drive more money into our school districts, watch our local costs to try to manage those the best we can and communicate with the state. If a district gets into a situation where they're having trouble, they should let Andy or myself know right away and we'll do everything we can to help."
After the questions were posed, the CCSBA presented the legislators with recommendations to be taken back to Albany.
Some of the CCSBA suggestions included doing away with the Gap Elimination Adjustment formula through bullet aid, removing money for nonessential programs such as performance grants and teacher centers, adjusting the Personal Income Growth index and forming a group of "Upstate 20" Senators with the objective of providing equitable state aid for all students across the state.
Despite the severity of the issues that were discussed, Goodell enforced the idea that it all comes down to providing an opportunity for the students that are being affected.
"A sound education is critical, not only for the student, but for the local economy," he said. "It is the single most important matter in enabling someone to be successful, or not."