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North Country schools anxious for Cuomo's budget

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North country school leaders are anxious to see Governor Cuomo's budget proposal when it's released Tuesday. Cuomo has committed to boosting state aid to schools by 4%. But local schools don't know how that will affect their budgets.

Some district superintendents have been lobbying hard to restore cutbacks made by the state last year. Julie Grant spoke with Stephen Putman, superintendent of the Brasher Falls Central Schools.
He says there are a variety of ways poor districts are losing out.

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Julie Grant
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It’s easy to get confused when you’re talking about the school funding formula. Stephen Putman says his district gets about 80 percent of its funding from the state. That’s more than $ 10 million. And $8 million of that is what the state calls foundation aid.   

The state looks at incomes and property values in each district, and comes up with a value for the wealth of that district. Putman says the poorest a district can be, theoretically, is 0.65.

"Now an average wealth district for the state of New York is 1.0, and if you’re particularly wealthy you’d be higher than 1.0, you could be 2.0 or 1.6, there’s districts as high as 8, really wealthy districts. And if you’re poorer then the average district, you’d be 0-point-something. At 0.65 they put an artificial floor in.  And if you’re below that, then you get funded as if you're wealther than you actually are," Putman explained.

"For example, in Brasher Falls, we waiver [between the] 10-15th poorest district in New York state, and several other districts in St. Lawrence County are in that category too, and our combined ratio in the last few years has been anywhere between 0.298-0.315, so you can see that’s less than half of 0.65 that their funding is at. So their funding is at a rate that is for a district that is less poor than we are."

Putman says the formula is inequitable. Last year the Cuomo administration made an across-the-board cut to all districts to make up for its own budget gap. 

Putman says that cut fell inordinately hard on poor districts.

"Now unfortunately, the more aid you got, the more they took back. So the wealthier districts if t hey don’t get as much, they didn’t lose as much, so they didn’t get hurt as bad. It was designed to be in relation to how much aid you got, but the net effect was to hurt poor districts significantly more," he said. 

 Putman says Brasher Falls has cut 18 positions. That’s 15 percent of its staff over the past two years, including a teacher, administrator and some janitorial staff. He says classes are bigger. And these days they can’t afford to clean the school every day.

He and other north country superintendents traveled to Albany numerous times in recent months to talk with legislative leaders, as well as Cuomo’s assistant secretary for education. They wanted the administration to understand the stark statistics.

"We showed how some comparable size wealthy districts downstate, for example one district I compared our district with was similar in size, They could have made up the gap elimination with 2 percent increase in property taxes," Putman said. "For us to make up the gap elimination that we were assessed would have required about a 32 percent increase in property taxes, to make up for that gap elimination, the money that was taken back by the state. That’s the kind of inequities, that’s what we had the data to show." 

Putman says this year his district used $1.2 million from the fund balance to balance the budget.  But he says that’s not sustainable for long. He’s hoping the governor’s budget provides some relief.  Assemblywoman Adie Russell is also paying attention to the inequities of school funding. She’s introduced a bill that would take into account the true measure of a district’s wealth.









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