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North country politicians differ on school aid formula changes

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CANTON — When it comes to the complicated formula that’s used to dole out state money to public schools, the devil is in the details, according to Thomas R. Burns, superintendent of the St. Lawrence-Lewis Board of Cooperative Educational Services.

That’s why he’s taking a cautious approach to forming an opinion on separate legislation proposals by Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell, D-Theresa, and state Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton.

Both lawmakers are fighting to have more funding diverted to low-wealth school districts like those in Northern New York, but they disagree on the best way to change the state aid formula to make that happen. With several area schools predicting bankruptcy unless something changes, lobbying for more school funding has moved into high gear.

Mr. Burns said education officials are analyzing how the different proposals would affect public schools on a district-by-district basis.

“We need to make sure we get it right,” Mr. Burns said. “You really have to do sample state-aid runs to see how they impact our districts.”

Among those studying possible formula changes is Richard G. Timbs, executive director of the Statewide School Finance Consortium.

Other organizations following the situation and analyzing the aid formula proposals include the New York State Council of School Superintendents and the Rural Schools Association, he said.

Mrs. Russell said she plans to reintroduce a bill she proposed last year to overhaul the state’s school aid formula. Her legislation failed to gain a co-sponsor last year in the Senate, with both Mrs. Ritchie and Sen. Joseph A. Griffo, R-Rome, declining to support it.

Besides funneling more money to poor rural schools, Mrs. Russell said, her plan would bring more dollars to poor city school districts, which may increase the chances of her bill getting passed.

Calling the funding situation faced by many public schools “deplorable,” Mrs. Russell said rural districts need to team up with poor urban areas, including the state’s “big five” city school districts, in supporting the provisions in her legislation.

“It’s essential that all poor school district communities band together and work to reform the school aid formula in this year’s budget process, and they can use this bill as the model language,” Mrs. Russell said in an emailed statement. “The inequity in the state’s school aid funding is pushing our school districts over their own fiscal cliff.”

But her legislation has been faulted by Mrs. Ritchie and others who said the Assembly bill would steer an even larger share of state aid to New York City.

Mrs. Ritchie has a different bill that’s also designed to bring more funding to poor rural schools by changing the formula used in state education law.

Her proposal also eliminates a provision that requires all school districts, even wealthy ones, to receive a minimum of $500 in state aid per student.

Ending the minimum aid allocation increases the amount of aid available for those districts that need it the most, she said.

Mr. Burns said he can’t support any formula change that sends more state aid to wealthy school districts.

“We have to send every dime to the neediest districts. We are at that point,” Mr. Burns said. “We can’t accept any formula that sends additional aid to districts that are three to 10 times wealthier than our communities,” he said.

Mrs. Ritchie said she’s concerned the formula changes proposed by Mrs. Russell will be rejected by the governor because they’d require a massive increase in state funding and the money isn’t available.

“There is not a huge pot of money to go around,” she said. “My focus was to try to help rural schools. I took a narrower focus.”

However, Mrs. Ritchie said Monday that she is willing to try to reach a compromise with Mrs. Russell because they share the goal of helping struggling north country public schools.

“I’m certainly open to having conversations with her,” she said.

Sarah V. Compo, a spokeswoman for Mrs. Ritchie, said the senator developed her bill with input from local school leaders and reform advocates.

Both bills would allow districts to calculate aid based on data from the past five years, which would assist schools with declining student enrollment, such as several north country districts.

Mrs. Russell said Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s 2013 state budget needs to include funding changes for public schools.

Even though much of the state is being shortchanged by problems in the formula, she said, school aid funding reform is one of the most divisive issues facing the state Legislature.

“There is ongoing advocacy across the state,” Mrs. Russell said. “The governor is in the process of preparing his budget. The time is right for advocacy.”

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