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Public School Spending An Area Of Contention As Cuomo Readies Budget

Governor Andrew Cuomo speaking in Saranac Lake
Pat Bradley/WAMC
Governor Andrew Cuomo speaking in Saranac Lake

Governor Andrew Cuomo is ready to release his state budget plan on Tuesday, and public school spending will likely once again be an area of contention, as the state faces a $6 billion budget gap.

It’s been a longstanding tradition in Albany that the governor, whether a Democrat or a Republican, lowballs the amount of money needed for public schools, while the legislature presses to increase that amount. In the end, the two sides usually agree to split the difference.

This year, Governor Cuomo fulfilled his role in the dance during his State of the State message. He warned, not for the first time, that simply increasing spending will not solve the system’s problems.

“We should be proud that we invest more per student than any state in the nation,” Cuomo said.

Cuomo says the issue is not the amount of money spent, but how it’s distributed.

While New York may be first in the amount of spending per pupil, it ranks 49th in the nation in its unequal distribution of school funding, with wealthy districts outspending poor districts by $10,000 per pupil.  The governor calls it “the civil rights issue of our time.”

“It is shameful,” Cuomo said.

Part of the inequity is because more than half of public school funding comes from property taxes, and wealthier areas have a bigger tax base than poor areas.

The Board of Regents said in December that one way to help alleviate the inequality is for the state to invest an additional $2 billion into the schools, and that the money be directed toward the state’s poorest school districts.

Several Democratic state lawmakers, as well as the teachers union, are also pressing for more funding. They say New York needs to finally fulfill a court order issued 13 years ago, known as the Campaign for Fiscal Equity decision. It said the state needed to spend billions more on schools on what’s known as foundation aid, in order to give children their constitutional right to an adequate education.

New York State United Teachers President Andy Pallotta was part of a delegation that came to the capitol before the budget was released to lobby lawmakers.

“Obviously more money is the answer,” said Pallotta. “What they need to do is put the $3.4 billion (owed) in foundation aid, into the schools.”

Cuomo, who has feuded with the teachers union in the past, has said that the court order only applied to New York City, although it was widely interpreted at the time to apply to the whole state.

Pallotta was joined by Randi Weingarten, the President of the American Federation of Teachers, a national union, as well as parents, teachers and students from the Rochester City School District. The district is facing a $65 million budget gap, and recently laid off over 100 teachers and other staff.

Weingarten says the court order needs to be fulfilled, and funding increased, but she says the problems facing Rochester and other cities like it across the nation go far beyond that.

These communities across America have been abandoned by business interests,” said Weingarten who said the communities are “fraying.”

She compares the situation in Rochester to that of coal country locations in West Virginia, where mines have closed, and other areas like Detroit, where economically depressed conditions have led to social problems including opioid abuse.  She says the long-term goal is to revive the community, by creating good paying jobs and devising an economic development plan.

“What is absolutely crucial, is in this in between period, the schools must provide the safe and welcoming environment for kids,” Weingarten said.

Pallotta, with NYSUT, says he believes that the budget crisis in Rochester is not an aberration, and that other school districts in cities across New York might soon be facing similar issues unless the state finds a way to adequately fund them.

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