School administrators blast Gov's aid plans


By Jim Poole

Carl Mummenthey believes his Cobleskill-Richmondville students are being short-changed.
That's the polite way the C-R Superintendent describes the growing financial aid crisis facing New York's rural schools.
Mr. Mummenthey, the Cobleskill-Richmondville superintendent, is concerned about the upcoming 2017-18 budget, now in the planning stage.
But he's more worried about the long-term implications of expenses outracing revenue, especially with lower-than-deserved state aid and what school officials locally call the troublesome tax-levy cap.
To that end, Mr. Mummenthey supports widespread advocacy, or lobbying, to overhaul the aid formula and stabilize the tax cap.
School finances are always a concern, but Mr. Mummenthey's fears grew this month when Governor Cuomo's tentative budget showed a 1.4-percent increase in aid for C-R. The district's tax cap--meaning C-R can raise the levy only this percentage--is .6 percent.
"Our two sources of revenue, state aid and property taxes, are growing at half the rate our expenses are," said Mr. Mummenthey.
Most expenses, such as salaries and benefits, have annual increases.
When income doesn't meet expenses for rural schools, they must cut programs for students and/or lose top-flight teachers, and that's when "our kids get short-changed," as Mr. Mummenthey put it.
"If expenses are rising 2 to 2.5 percent each year and revenues are growing .5 to 1 percent, what are we to do?" he asked.
Other school officials agreed.
"It's true everywhere, for all rural schools similar to ours," said Schoharie Superintendent David Blanchard.
"Our kids are still losing," said Middleburgh Superintendent Michele Weaver, who described her district as being in dire straits financially.
When approved by Albany several years ago, the tax-levy cap was billed at two percent. But the cap is tied to the Consumer Price Index, and it varies for each school district.
The cap, however, is rarely two percent; it's almost always lower.
"They painted a rosy picture when they passed the bill," said Sharon Springs Business Manager Tony DiPace. "But to look at it, it's not that way."
Mr. Mummenthey and others want to push for the cap to be two percent, as it was originally explained. That way, districts could plan their finances better instead of trying to meet a moving target every year.
Changing state aid--or foundation aid, which schools can use for a variety of purposes--could be more difficult. The Governor and legislature tinker with the aid formula every year, but local school leaders believe the state should redesign the entire formula.
That means wealthy suburban districts would get less aid, or not as much of an increase, and poorer rural districts would get more.
"Fixing the formula pits Upstate against Downstate," Ms. Weaver observed, noting the political hurdles.
Still, Mr. Mummenthey said, "The state spends $23 or $24 billion a year on education. There's got to be a better way to distribute the money."
He said Governor Cuomo favors independent panels and suggested one--"get all those smart people in one room"--to revamp the aid formula.
But Ms. Weaver argued otherwise, that the panel should include the Governor's representatives, legislators and education leaders.
An independent panel, no matter what its findings, could be ignored by government. One with members who have political skin in the game would have more influence for change, Ms. Weaver said.
"It has to include the Governor's people," she said. "There has to be some power behind the recommendations.
"How do we have everyone come together? We all have to get on the same page."
As for lobbying or advocacy, both Mr. Blanchard and Ms. Weaver said legislators respond more strongly to local stories.
"We have to reach out to let them know how [a lack of funding] effects students," Mr. Blanchard said.
Local districts support statewide and regional organizations that advocate for rural schools. For public advocacy, Mr. Mummenthey recommended that concerned parents follow their districts' lead and try to speak as one voice.
"If [legislators] hear a lot of different messages, it's not going to work," he said. "It's got to be focused."