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Advocates say lack of money at core of New York school struggles

The state budget deadline is approaching and education issues are taking center stage. Only one day before massive rallies for universal pre-K and charter schools, other advocates say they’ve gathered evidence for potentially another lawsuit for more state aid for schools.

The Alliance for Quality Education has been touring schools around the state to document what they say is the erosion of districts in economically depressed areas.

AQE’s Billy Easton says they’ve found schools forced to choose between offering music or art, band or Spanish. In some schools, there are no guidance counselors or librarians.

“These are serious resource deficiencies,” Easton said. “The state is not doing its job.”

The advocates say if New York lawmakers had followed an order from the state’s highest court, issued in 2006, schools would be getting an additional $5 to $6 billion a year.

Several superintendents attended the release of the report at the Assembly Education Committee conference room. Schenectady Schools superintendent Larry Spring says his district, one of the poorest in the state, should be getting $62 million more in aid per year, if the court order were followed. He says at the current lower level of state funding, the school district faces a $10 million budget gap.

“We’re having to consider whether or not we can continue to offer kindergarten,” Spring said.  

Assembly Education Committee Chair Cathy Nolan agrees there is a severe need for more resources for the state’s financially stressed schools, but was not ready to endorse the amount of spending directed by the court order. She says she does support a plan to fund about half that amount, though. Nolan and many of her colleagues have signed a letter seeking an additional $1.9 billion in school aid in the new budget.

“You keep pushing,” said Nolan. “That’s what we’re here to do.”

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said more money is not always the best answer.

Easton, with AQE, says the governor’s budget proposal to freeze property taxes and phase out a utility tax, worth a combined $500 million, could be scrapped in order to provide more money for needy school districts. And he says both houses of the legislature estimate there is $350-400 million more in the state budget than the governor has predicted, which could also be sent to schools. Assemblywoman Nolan and other Assembly members at the meeting were non-committal.

“I don’t want to comment about the property taxes,” Nolan said. “We have another committee for that.”

And she says the Assembly Ways and Means Committee will make the ultimate budget decisions.

The report comes at a time when other education issues are swirling at the Capitol. There’s a push, led by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, to fund universal pre-K, and Cuomo has promised he’ll give money to any district to pay for pre-K as soon as they can show a plan is ready to be implemented.

Major rallies are planned at the Capitol Tuesday to lobby for universal pre-K, and to keep charter schools open, as well as add new ones.  

There are also concerns about implementation of the new federal Common Core learning standards.

David Sciarra is with the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, the group that successfully brought the lawsuit for more school funding. He says the root of growing concerns about Common Core, and the lack of pre-kindergarten are the same; New York lawmakers are not making the financial commitment needed for schools to function in the first place.

“The connection here is deep, it’s interrelated,” Sciarra said.  

The Campaign for Fiscal Equity is considering going back to the legal system to try to force Cuomo and the state legislature to obey the original court order.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.