Mail this story to a friend.          
NYSNYS NEWS: Advocates say Cuomo, legislators withholding money due to school districts, hurting minority children the most.
NYSNYS NEWS: Advocates say Cuomo, legislators withholding money due to school districts, hurting minority children the most.

By Kyle Hughes

ALBANY, N.Y. (August 7) Gov. Andrew Cuomo and legislators have systematically withheld money owed poor school districts in recent years, with black and minority children suffering the most, advocates charged Wednesday.

"New York State has the most segregated school system in the United States," said Schenectady School Superintendent Larry Spring. "It's not Alabama, it's not Georgia, none of the states in the south, it's New York State."

"When you look at how New York state implements the (school aid) foundation formula, the school districts that are minority as a majority population 55 percent of those school districts are receiving less than 70 percent of their foundation aid."

"We are not adequately funding our education program for all of our children, especially the school districts in my (Senate) district because we rely more on state aid," Sen. Cecilia Tkaczyk (D-Duanesburg) said. "The cuts to our schools over the past five years have been devastating."

"We wonder why property taxes are so high when we look at what we owe our schools," she added.

Sen. Neil Breslin (D-Bethlehem), whose district includes the small cities on the Hudson from Albany north to Cohoes, said the treatment of mostly minority schools was "embarrassing."

They spoke as the Alliance for Quality Education, a group backed by the teachers union, released a report estimating New York state is $5.9 billion behind in what it owes to "high needs" schools an amount more than double what is owed to wealthy school districts.

The money was promised as part of a court settlement over inequitable school funding, but the governor and lawmakers curtailed the funding starting with the 2010 school year. State aid was kept flat that year, and was cut by $2.7 billion over two years by Gov. Andrew Cuomo after he took office in 2011. The money was used to mitigate the impact on the state budget of the near collapse of the U.S. economy in 2008, as well as to help pay for tax cuts sought by Cuomo.

Advocates called for a portion of the state budget's $6.2 billion surplus to be set aside for school aid. The call comes as the state faces several different lawsuits intended to pry loose more state aid to poor school districts.

"Now is the time more than ever before for New York State to pick where we should have been generations ago," said Assemblyman John McDonald (D-Cohoes). He said school funding is more important than ever with the disappearance of blue collar manufacturing jobs that didn't require advanced education.

"The problem in education in New York doesn't rest with teachers or with students or with parents," said Jesse Laymon, executive director of EffectiveNY, a reform advocacy group based in New York City. "The problem we have with education in New York is made up of senators and assemblymen and governors."

He said the state create school district, decides the curriculum and sets the standards, but has fallen far short when it comes to providing financial help for poor urban and rural districts.

"New York State does not have failing schools," Laymon said. "New York State has a government that is failing our schools and our students and our teachers."

Spring says Schenectady is being shortchanged on state aid by about $60 million annually. The district is large, diverse and growing, with mostly poor and non-white students. Because the poverty rate in the city is so high, every single child in the district is eligible for free and reduced price lunch.

The gap in state aid promised and delivered has meant cuts, with the district running annual deficits of between $9 million and $11 million for each of the past 10 years. The squeeze has resulted in a high school tax burden in Schenectady and dramatic staff cuts.

"Last year we cut over 120 staff to balance the budget," Spring added. "This year we've cut almost 60 staff to balance the budget. Staff sizes are at the maximum."

Though many children require mental health services because of poverty and family conditions, the district has had to cut psychologists, guidance counselors and other vital staff, he said.