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If the governor is the new advocate for children, he must not be the advocate for children in high poverty school districts.

North Country schools disappointed with Cuomo budget plan

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Most of the education talk in Governor Andrew Cuomo's budget speech this week was about teacher evaluations. But Cuomo's written proposal also offers increasing aid to schools by 4% with a significant portion of that earmarked for high needs districts. That sounds like good news for struggling north country schools. But now that they're getting the details, some are fighting mad. Julie Grant reports.

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Julie Grant
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Governor Cuomo started calling himself the lobbyist for students during his state of the state speech earlier this month. 

On first blush, the Governor’s education funding proposal sounded good to leaders in the north country. We spoke with State senator Patty Ritchie soon after Cuomo’s budget speech on Tuesday. "He certainly was saying the right things, he’s talking about high needs schools. So that was great news to hear," she said.

But Ritchie sounded a note of caution. "But we’re waiting to get the actually get the school numbers in. As soon as we get the school runs in, we will be sending that to our local districts." 

Now district leaders have gotten those details.

"Well, I’m disappointed," said Stephen Putman, superintendent of the Brasher Falls Central Schools. 

His district, and others in St. Lawrence County, are among the 10-15th poorest in New York. "If the governor is the new advocate for children, he must not be the advocate for children in high poverty school districts. Maybe he didn’t mean all of the children," Putman said.

This is a somewhat surprising statement, when you consider that Cuomo’s budget increases school aid by 4%. That’s $800 million in education funding.  And of that, nearly $300 million is earmarked for poor districts. 

But Putman says school aid distribution, as a whole, favors wealthy districts. So just changing how this small percentage is divvied up isn’t much consolation. "Okay, so 95% of the funding has a big equity problem," Putman explained. "But we’re going to take this 5%, actually 4%, so high needs districts get more of it and somehow think that solves the problem. I think that’s ludicrous, to be honest."

Last year New York cut funding to every school to make up for the state’s own budget gap.  Putman says Brasher Falls lost more than 10% of its basic state aid, $1.2 million. This year, the district is in line to lose only $900,000 in state aid.

"And I’m supposed to think that’s a good thing, I guess," Putman said. "I just feel as though there was very little effort put in to addressing the stark inequities in funding."

Assemblywoman Addie Russell has additional concerns about how poor districts will be treated in the new state budget.  Cuomo’s plan would distribute $250 million to schools through competitive grants. Russell says this could leave poor districts at a disadvantage.

"You have to build in protections [so] that poorer school districts with less resources aren't going to be on the losing end of funding because they do not pay consultants and grant writers money they don’t have in order to get a chance at winning this money," she said.

The budget is now before the legislature, and Cuomo administration staffers are taking their budget message across the state.  A final budget is due by April 1.

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