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Rural Schools Association of New York State leader talks about issues facing rural schools

Rural Schools Association of New York State Executive Director David Little
Rural Schools Association of New York
Rural Schools Association of New York State Executive Director David Little

The Rural Schools Association of New York State advocates for the needs of rural and small school districts, working to assure they have the resources and staffing to support students. Executive Director David Little has been attending a series of issues forums across the state. During a stop in Plattsburgh this week he spoke with WAMC North Country Bureau Chief Pat Bradley about the organization’s work and the goals of the forum:

The reason for the rural issues forums is to get up to date current information, the challenges and issues of not only the schools in these rural communities, but the communities themselves. What are they facing economically? What are they facing socially? What state policies or federal policies might our association advocate for on their behalf that would help address some of the serious challenges that they're identifying? You know, the rest of the country when they talk about most of our state is rural, well, when you think rural in New York it's very different because they have actual names: the Finger Lakes, the Catskills, the Adirondacks, the Thousand Islands, the North and South Shores of Long Island. All of these areas have very unique characters and each of them creates a different set of challenges. Everyone has a unique set of circumstances they're facing. So we need to hear from one end of the state to the other. And in doing that we ought to be able to identify, not what we think the problems are, but what we've been told the problems are, so that we can educate policymakers to make effective choices. Because it's almost half of the schools in our state and it's 40% of the students.

David Little, many of the issues that rural schools and communities address have been around for quite a while. And we've had a pandemic that occurred and there's still some lingering effects from that. So are you finding that the issues have changed in the last few years?

We've got all the old issues and we've got new ones piled on. The old issues, lack of broadband access slowly getting better, but certainly not in enough of a way to make us economically or educationally equivalent of what people get in our more populated areas. We don't recognize, because the state didn't want to talk about it I mean very purposeful, you didn't hear a word out of the state. But for an entire decade the state of New York lost almost a million people out of upstate New York. It was the second largest outward migration in United States history and nobody said a word. That obviously did things to our schools, it obviously to enrollment. School funding is based on student enrollment and we lost a third of our students. So trying to adequately fund our schools we found that those kinds of problems were compounded during that time period. And then all of the social implications of the pandemic coming on the heels of that. And so we've got some brand new challenges on top of all the old ones that we were well aware of.

David Little, New York State has a mandate for EV buses that schools will have to implement? What's happening there and what are the implications for rural school districts?

We don't know what the implications are largely because the state's plan hasn't been fleshed out yet. We've got in essence 12 years to convert all school buses to electric vehicles. The state so far has only allocated the half a billion dollars that was put into the Environmental Bond Act that the public passed last fall. And that's a drop in the bucket largely because a school bus costs about $100,000. An electric school bus costs about $350,000. They're going to have to relieve schools of some pretty significant costs because this is a significant outlay of public money to buy all of these electric vehicles, put in the charging stations. We have lots to sort out in the time that we've been given so far and we could really use guidance as soon as the state can come up with it.

David Little, what sorts of funding concerns do rural school districts have at this point in time?

In virtually every other state, the state pays for 60% of the cost of public education. New York reverses that. It pays a little less than 40% of the cost of education and 60% is left to the local community. Now, that's not the case in every community because some of them have very high state aid ratios. But when you've got a tax cap that you can't raise revenue and you have a very small tax base, well we're in 6% inflation, and if the state isn't going to sufficiently provide you what you need which is their constitutional responsibility, they've denied a child their constitutional right.

David Little, the proposed budget, how is it looking for rural school districts?

For one of the first times in in my memory, and as I say I'm in my 40th year, education is not the sticking point in this negotiation for the budget. They've decided to meet their commitment to fully fund their existing formula. The problem is that the existing formula is now a generation old and it's largely irrelevant. And the easy thing for the state to do would be to simply say okay everybody gets a 3% increase, you're fully funded, now you're just going to get a percentage increase. There's no more inequitable way to fund our schools than to give everybody the same amount of percentage. Because you may be in an impoverished district. You may be in a Westchester district that's already spending $100,000 per child. So to think that everybody needs the same amount across the board to me is unthinkable. The state needs to spend the time and the resources to come up with a new, adequate state aid formula that addresses new identified needs for students.

David Little extended.MP3
Extended conversation with Rural Schools Association Executive Director David Little