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State aid cuts squeeze rural schools

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Across the North Country, school districts are wrestling with deep cuts to their budgets - the result of Albany's efforts to rein in billions of dollars in deficit spending.

Governor Cuomo has stood firm on his belief schools have the finances to absorb a $1.2 billion cut in education funding. But those cuts are hitting rural school districts especially hard. Educators blame a byzantine and outdated school funding formula. David Sommerstein reports.

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Students like senior Joleen Stoffle are organizing fundraisers to pay the school bills.

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You can see the Beaver River from the Beaver River central school district, near Croghan in Lewis County.  Big paper mills hunker on the far shore, the legacy of the forestry industry that built these towns.

Back in 2000, we had all sorts of business.  We had mills that were operating, booming.  Things were great around here, but in ten years time, things are rough.

Alex Barrett is Beaver River’s high school guidance counselor.  He says all but one is closed, and it’s scaled back production. 

Barrett says most students will have to seek their fortunes elsewhere.  And he believes a well-rounded school is the key to helping them do that.

We’re trying to help kids see life outside of our boundaries.  Without art and music and sports and those types of programs, we’re not going to be able to do it.

Like many North Country schools, state aid cuts are forcing Beaver River to slash music, art, and athletics.  And like many superintendents in the region, Beaver River’s Leueen Smithling blames New York’s complicated school funding formula. 

Smithling says her school’s funding reflects an economic picture from 2001, when those mills were still open.

Think if how you and I were doing our mortgage and we wanted to be refinanced.  Our bank would want the most current data, yet the snapshot is back ten years old, so to me that makes absolutely no sense that they’re not using the most current data.

In fact, Beaver River is losing as much state aid – dollar for dollar - as downstate suburban districts that have 7 to 10 times larger overall budgets.  For example, Hewlitt-Woodmere on Long Island has a 100 million dollar budget, yet it lost less state aid than Beaver River did with a 17 million dollar budget.

Smithling says that means while those districts weigh whether to cut Russian or another AP class, Beaver River is being forced to make Spanish the only foreign language taught.

Rural schools should not be taken advantage of and essentially he’s creating a caste system of lower, substandard schools, and is that right?

That “he” Smithling’s referring to is Governor Cuomo, who stands firm in saying that all school districts are being treated fairly.  Cuomo says school spending has risen out of control over the last decade, and there’s plenty of fat now.

Manage the school system.  Reduce the waste, reduce the fraud, reduce the abuse.  ‘Well, we don’t have any.” I don’t believe it.

That may be the case for wealthier districts, says Rick Timbs.  Timbs directs the Statewide School Finance Consortium.

Their salaries are higher, their property values are higher, their ability to pay taxes is higher, their programs are much more dynamic and large and comprehensive, and their cut as a comparison to their budget is probably a fifth or a tenth of the cut of what Beaver River would experience.

Timbs says the school funding formula is based too much on how many students go to a school, regardless of that district’s economic profile. 

And they don’t take into account the Upstate demise, the continued demise of its economy and therefore these districts continue to get short-changed.

For example, the list of “high needs” schools – economically disadvantaged ones that get extra state aid – hasn’t been updated since 2005.  That’s the problem at Beaver River. 

In St. Lawrence County, Potsdam superintendent Patrick Brady says he’s facing it, too.  He says the designation hasn’t kept up with an eroding tax base, and that’s in part why he may have to lay off 17 teachers.

We would certainly like the state to relook at us in terms of whether we are an average needs or a high needs district.

State Senator Patty Ritchie agrees the school funding formula needs to be reformed.  But she says a survey of her constituents found two-thirds supported the education cuts.  Ritchie says taxes need to come down and spending must be reined in.

It’s really tough times and schools are really struggling right now, but the state had a ten billion dollar deficit that had to be dealt with.  Next year it was projected to be fifteen billion.  The state just couldn’t continue to go in the same direction it had been going or we’re going to be in a lot worse shape next year than we are now.

Next year could be worse for rural school districts if Senate Republicans like Ritchie and Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo get what they want – a property tax cap that would keep increases to 2% a year.  But Ritchie says this is what people want.

Y’know, in that same survey, 81% of the people who sent them back in supported a property tax cap.

Back in Croghan, Beaver River school district is asking voters to approve a 5% tax increase.  And that’s with the cuts to music, arts, sports, and foreign languages.

The halls are plastered with signs reading S.O.S. – Save Our School.  On display are student paintings and sculpture.

This is all the stuff that they’ve done in classes that we risk losing this year.

Rhonda Foote graduated from Beaver River.  Now her daughter’s in eighth grade.  She says the community’s taking matters into its own hands to raise money, bake sale by Zumbathon, alumni talent show by potholder sale.  But it’s also taken up a rallying cry based on the Doctor Seuss book Horten Hears a Who, from one rural school district to the people in Albany who decide how schools are funded.

The story Horten Hears a Who.  We are here!  We are here! We are here!  We want them to know the little school is here.  And we do count.

For North Country Public Radio, I’m David Sommerstein in Beaver Falls.

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