Assemblywoman Addie J. Russells proposal to redistribute state aid at the expense of wealthy downstate districts is unrealistic. It failed last year, and there is little reason to believe it will pass the Legislature this year.
Mrs. Russells School Funding Equity Act makes sense with its overall objective to modify the state aid formula so poor districts receive more assistance. However, the additional aid to rural, north country districts would come at the expense of downstate, suburban districts.
Placing greater emphasis on the number of students receiving free and reduced lunches favors low-income districts. Another proposal would eliminate the provision that all districts receive a minimum amount of school aid. She would also replace automatic increases with a guarantee of only 85 percent of the previous years funding. The reclaimed funds from wealthy districts would be allocated to low-wealth, high-need districts.
Mrs. Russells proposal, though, is certain to meet well-organized, determined opposition from wealthy districts, as measured by income and property values. They are not going to sit back and let it happen. Their legislators, sent to Albany to protect their interests, will not readily surrender their state aid to be replaced by higher, local property taxes so their funds can be sent to school districts in Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties.
Imagine what would happen if the roles were reversed. What would be the reaction of Indian River Central School District were asked to give up a share of its state aid? By some measures, it could be considered a well-off district with one of the lowest tax levies in the tri-county region thanks to the heavy impact aid it receives for educating military students.
While other districts have been laying off staff, Indian River is looking at hiring for the second year in a row. With budget preparations under way, the superintendent recently told the board that it is in a rather extraordinary position with a fund balance in excess of anything youve had before. After years of dipping into their fund balances to maintain programs, few districts can say that. Yet neither Mrs. Russell nor district officials would stand idly by if their state aid were slashed by a plan to send more money downstate.
Many north country districts are facing educational and financial insolvency in the next few years. Districts can use additional aid in the short term, but more money alone is not the solution in districts that have experienced steadily declining enrollments. St. Lawrence County districts have seen their student enrollment drop by more than a third in the past couple of decades. Students miss out on electives that cannot be justified with smaller class sizes. Financially struggling districts have reduced staff and eliminated programs.
Mrs. Russell needs to get behind creative solutions, such as regional high schools, rather than pandering to political interests. Districts need incentives and flexibility now to consolidate services and programs and streamline operations to reduce costs so they can more efficiently provide students a range of educational opportunities.