As many St. Lawrence County schools struggle financially, Assemblywoman Russell to reintroduce school aid reform bill
Thursday, November 29, 2012 - 9:09 am

With many St. Lawrence County school districts struggling financially due to state aid cuts, Assemblywoman Addie Russell is reintroducing legislation she sponsored last session to overhaul the state’s school aid formula.

The legislation, A.8844, would amend the current school aid formula to provide more equity in funding, benefiting poorer school districts, Russell says.

It would cut automatic aid payments to wealthy districts that don’t need it, Russell says.

Russell, a Democrat from Theresa whose district covers northern St. Lawrence County including Potsdam and Canton, says the issue is potentially divisive. Key to passage of this bill in the Assembly, Russell says, will be a coalition of North Country advocates and support from New York City legislators and those from other urban centers concerned about poorer schools in their districts.

Richard Timbs, executive director of the Statewide School Finance Consortium, spoke at the BOCES offices in Canton Tuesday urging people to make their state representatives move on a new, fairer school aid plan, and singled out Russell as a legislator who could be guided to act.

“This legislation is essential to ensuring that children in the most disadvantaged parts of this state receive even the most basic education,” Russell explained.

“The inequity in the state’s school aid funding is pushing our school districts over their own fiscal cliff,” she added. “The provisions of this bill address the needs of our North Country schools as well as poor city schools across this state,” she added.

“It is 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,” Russell concluded.

The legislation addresses several areas of the school aid formula. Russell provides this analysis:

· The language allows for aid to be calculated based upon data within the last five years, helping school districts experiencing fluctuation in their communities. In the North Country it will assist schools with declining enrollment; in other areas it may help with reduced property values or increased free and reduced school lunch figures.

· The language eliminates the provision that requires all school districts to receive a minimum amount of school aid. Currently school districts that should not receive aid as a result of the formula are given aid anyway, five hundred dollars per student. Ending minimum aid allocation increases the amount of aid available for those districts that need it the most.

· The reform legislation also addresses arbitrary provisions in the funding formula that prevent the poorest schools from being compensated based upon their actual data. The bill language permits schools with wealth ratios below .65 and above .25 to use their actual wealth ration. Current law will only allow districts to use a minimum of .65 when calculating aid even though many districts have lower ratios. The bill also prevents wealthy school districts from appearing poorer than they actually are. The bill language provides for increasing the wealth ratio ceiling for school districts. These provisions allow for calculating school aid based upon actual figures instead of rounding the poor district wealth ratios up and the wealthy district ratios down.

· The legislation calls for the regional cost index in the formula to be updated to reflect current data, a provision that will not likely have an impact on North Country schools, but will impact other areas of the state and makes the legislation a well rounded approach to reform. This provision may benefit wealthy districts.

· The legislation builds upon an adjustment made to the formula in last year’s budget process. The bill eliminates automatic increases in aid to school districts that do not need those funds as indicated by the school aid formula. The school aid formula has been overridden by a provision driving three percent more aid year after year to districts that do not need the aid, depriving poor school districts of those funds. In the last budget the increase was reduced from a three percent increase to .6 percent increase. The proposed legislation only assures districts they will receive up to eighty-five percent of what they received the year before, in other words, allows for an up to fifteen percent reduction each year. The language also permits districts that are entitled to increased funding based upon historical funding inequities to receive one hundred twenty-five percent of what they received the year before, an increase from one hundred fifteen percent. This provision provides the mechanism to reverse the expanding inequity in a phased approach.

“I have been working with several statewide organizations to energize communities to make school aid reform their top priority along with me,” Russell stated. “I spoke extensively at the New York State Association of Small City School Districts breakfast during the recent New York State School Boards Association conference in Rochester,” she said. “The breakfast provided an opportunity to reach beyond the North Country and build relationships and coalitions as we begin the budget process,” she explained. “I spoke in depth about how the reforms in A.8844 will work and the importance of showing support for the legislation now by pushing for its inclusion in the budget,” she explained. “The event on December 5th being coordinated by the Alliance for Quality Education, in which many area residents will participate, is an important part of this process,” she added.

Assemblywoman Russell has a strong history of work with the Alliance for Quality Education, attending their rallies in both Watertown and Albany. Russell also penned an OpEd on the issue last legislative session with an Assembly colleague representing a district in New York City. “New York City and the North Country are in the same boat when it comes to how the school aid formula works and the impact of budget cuts,” she asserted.

The Alliance for Quality Education was a key supporter of the campaign for fiscal equity lawsuit which resulted in a finding that the state’s school aid funding formula was wrought with problems resulting in inequities. The agreements made to remedy those problems have not been kept and even more damage has been done as a result of budget cuts.

“The promises made as a result of the lawsuit have not been kept and the cuts to schools called the gap elimination adjustment have only made the problem worse,” Russell explained. “Getting rid of the gap elimination adjustment is just as important as reforming the school aid formula,” she contended. “The two issues are tied together in terms of removing the provisions in state law that perpetuates the inequities in school funding across this state,” she argued.

“School aid funding reform is one of the most divisive issues in the state budget, even though most of the state is being shortchanged by problems in the formula,” Russell stated. “My approach has been to build broad based support around the state for the reform legislation and carry the fiscal and educational realities of our local districts to the legislature and governor,” she concluded.