Beacon Schools Still Owed $1.6 Million, Advocates Say

Governor, legislators argue for new aid formula

By Jeff Simms

As Beacon school officials draw up the district’s budget for 2017-18, there is a renewed push to secure millions of dollars — and billions statewide — that educators say they’re owed by New York state.

Last month, Gov. Andrew Cuomo released his proposed budget, which includes almost $1 billion more in aid to New York’s 700 public school districts.

That figure would also trigger a $428 million increase in “foundation aid,” which was established after a 2006 court ruling that found the state had deliberately underfunded schools in primarily black, Latino and lower-income communities. At the time, New York agreed to repay $5.5 billion to boost those districts.

During the recession, however, the payments stopped. As a result, the Alliance for Quality Education (AQE), an Albany-based advocacy group, says school systems across the state are still owed $3.9 billion, which includes $1.6 million for Beacon.

While New York already spends the most money on education of any state, AQE and the state Board of Regents argue that Cuomo’s proposal for education spending next year is not nearly enough.

“The amount doesn’t keep up with rising costs,” said Billy Easton, executive director of AQE. “At best you’re treading water.”

The state regents, who oversee all educational activity, had asked Cuomo to increase school spending by $2.1 billion. His proposal for the 2017-18 fiscal year, which begins April 1, amounts to less than half of that. It also includes a provision that AQE and other groups, including the New York State Council of School Superintendents, say scraps the formula for allocating foundation aid, opting instead to calculate future payments based on the 2017-18 distribution.

State legislators typically add more education funding before the budget is passed in late March or early April, but in a statement released this week, AQE blasted proposals by Republicans and independent Democrats in the Senate that include what AQE says is legislators’ own “dramatic overhaul” of the foundation-aid formula.

“If you are a student in poverty or a student with disabilities, this budget plan says you do not matter,” Easton charged.

In addition to increased funding for the coming fiscal year, Easton said AQE and other advocates are still pushing for a long-term plan to repay the billions they say have been owed to schools for a decade.

Adding to the complexity is the state-mandated tax cap, which requires school districts and local governments to raise property taxes each year by no more than 2 percent or the rate of inflation, whichever is less.

Last year the Beacon school board adopted a $67 million budget but to maintain programming and staffing levels at its six schools while staying within the tax cap had to draw $2 million from its savings. The district’s budget the year before drew $2.5 million from its reserves.

“It’s not a good practice,” school board President Anthony White said this week. “But we’re still not receiving the funding that we should be based on the foundation-aid formula. That’s what’s hurting us.”

The Beacon City Council passed a resolution last month calling for accountability and equity in school funding, while several board members have been part of grassroots campaigns to contact legislators asking for the same. But if the state budget doesn’t meet local needs, White says the district will need to get creative. “We don’t have the luxury of just increasing staff,” he said.

The school board must approve its budget at least two weeks before it goes before voters on May 16. Four of the nine board seats — those now held by White, Kenya Gadsden, Craig Wolf and Kristan Flynn — will also be on the ballot.

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