New York lawmakers pushing Albany to pay $4 billion 'debt' to schools

Many believe that it's past time to revise the foundation aid formula so that it uses more up-to-date data and reflects New York's changing demographics.

Gary Stern
Rockland/Westchester Journal News

New York's schools have griped these past few years that the state owes them $4 billion. 

Could this be the year that Albany starts to pay up?

With the state budget for 2021-22 due at midnight Thursday, Senate and Assembly leaders are pushing for the state to disburse, over three years, $4.2 billion that was never paid under the state's convoluted "foundation aid" formula. This payout would be in addition to an annual increase in state aid and a windfall in federal aid heading to New York's schools.

Even if legislators secure about $1.4 billion for the first year of the plan, there would be no guarantee for years two and three.

State Sen. Shelley Mayer, D-Yonkers, right, with Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins.

Legislative leaders also want a guarantee that all districts will get at least 60% of what the foundation aid formula calls for them to get in 2020-21, which would be a big deal for the suburbs.

For reasons that few understand, some districts in the Lower Hudson Valley get among the lowest percentages in New York of what the formula says they should in foundation aid. Nanuet, Eastchester, Tuckahoe, Port Chester, Elmsford and Ossining are annually among the most cheated districts in New York, going by the formula.

State Sen. Shelley Mayer, chair of the Senate education committee, said Monday that the budget was still being negotiated, but was optimistic that the aid owed to schools would finally be paid.

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"We've heard from the school community across the state that the failure to fully fund foundation aid over time has put districts in very diminished positions," she said.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has resisted strict compliance with the aid formula, saying it was part of a court settlement no longer in effect. His office has played a major role in determining where school aid goes in recent budgets. But with Cuomo weakened by scandals, legislative leaders are reaching to deliver the "missing" $4 billion.

Legislators are looking to raise taxes by up to $7 billion to cover school aid and other costs.

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What formula?

How could New York owe so much money to schools when the state already spends so much on education? Cuomo's budget proposal for 2021-22 would increase overall state and federal education aid by $2 billion for a total of $31 billion, accounting for over 15% of the overall state budget.

It goes back to a 2006 state court decision that found New York City schools were not funded at a level that provided a "sound, basic education" to all students, as required by the state constitution.

Then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer agreed to create a new statewide funding formula that would better measure the needs of each district, and to pump up state spending, beginning in 2007. The formula was supposed to measure a district's local funding ability, the needs of its students, the local cost of living and other factors.

But after only two years, the Great Recession hit and aid was frozen. The state never caught up. 

The foundation aid formula is compromised in other ways. Cuomo has used it as a starting point for distributing aid to school districts, but final aid figures have been hashed out during budget negotiations. Also, it's predetermined, based on a deal reached by legislators, that New York City gets 38.86% of overall aid and Long Island gets 12.96%. And no district loses year-to-year aid, even if enrollment drops.

So the aid formula is far from a strict formula. 

As a result, some districts get more than 100%, or even 200%, of the aid that the foundation formula determines is right for them. And some districts get way less.

Cuomo's budget proposal would give Nanuet 39.7% of its share, the third worst rate in the state, according to figures provided by the Assembly. Eastchester would get 43.4%; Tuckahoe, 44.5%; Port Chester, 45.2%; Elmsford, 46%; and Ossining, 48.7%.

Assembly member Amy Paulin, D-Scarsdale, a member of the Assembly education committee, said that 62 of 76 districts getting less than 60% of their allotted foundation aid are in the suburbs.

"When the recession hit, and foundation aid was cut back, suburban schools suffered disproportionately," she said.

Ossining Superintendent Ray Sanchez said he's never been able to get an answer from Albany for why his district's aid is less than half of what the formula calls for.

Measuring needs

Many believe that it's past time to revise the foundation aid formula so that it uses more up-to-date data and reflects New York's changing demographics.

The Senate's education and budget/revenues committees began a major review of the formula in 2019 with a series of roundtables across the state. But the process got halted when the pandemic arrived. 

There was an emerging consensus at the time that a formula could be devised to better measure community poverty, districts' ability to raise local property taxes, and school districts' changing needs — like the costs of educating growing numbers of English-language learners and students with disabilities.

Officials from districts with growing poverty said they were falling further behind neighboring districts with higher tax bases.

"I am tired of begging for money," Mount Vernon Superintendent Kenneth Hamilton said at a roundtable in Yonkers.

If legislators do nail down a major bump in education aid, it would be at the same time that federal aid is rushing to New York. 

New York's school districts are set to get about $4 billion in federal aid that was part of the second CARES Act in December. And the recently passed American Rescue plan will send another $9 billion to New York's K-12 schools

Mayer stressed that federal aid is to help schools deal with pandemic-related costs and should not affect the need to increase state aid.

"We're fortunate to have the federal money, but it's for COVID recovery," she said. "We want that to supplement the state's obligation to fund schools."

Twitter: @garysternNY