Rework Foundation Aid formula to make distribution fair

— Painting by Lucas François, 1681

Who is against funding schools?

No one.

That’s the simple answer.

Progressives as well as conservatives, Democrats along with Republicans can all see the value of educating our youth. The future of our society and our democracy, our progress in the arts and sciences, all depend on good public education.

In this century, schools have taken on many duties once supplied by homes or by community institutions.

Schools provide mental-health care experts as well as social workers for students who require those services. Schools supply meals to students who otherwise wouldn’t eat. Schools provide a sense of community where it is lacking. The list goes on.

We at The Enterprise spend much of our resources on covering local schools — from the sports and plays to the finances and curricula. That’s because we know these schools, often not otherwise covered, are important, and we believe the public, which supports these schools through taxes, deserves to be informed.

On this page, over many decades, we’ve supported both school programs and school budgets. But here we are writing an opinion that may well be unpopular. We urge you to read to the end and give it some thought.

Governor Kathy Hochul was widely hailed by educators when she committed to restore Foundation Aid. This school year, for the first time, every district got the state aid intended by the Foundation Aid formula.

If the state can continue to afford that, full Foundation Aid is certainly the way to go. But what if it can’t? What if the high taxes in New York are driving residents and businesses from the state at such a rate that, in the long run, supporting schools would become problematic?

Hochul’s budget proposal for next year included two changes to Foundation Aid. One is to change the way inflation is calculated, using a 10-year average, dropping the highest and lowest figures, instead of using the prior year’s inflation amount.

The other change, which has drawn the most attention, is doing away with the “hold harmless” or “save harmless” provision, which allows a school district with declining enrollment to still continue to get increases in state aid.

Leaders from the state’s school boards association and also from the state’s biggest teachers’ union are pushing to preserve hold harmless. They have used this example: If the number of students in a class decreases from, say, 25 to 23, the same resources are still needed. This, of course, is true.

But, what if, over the years, enrollment has plummeted?

Berne-Knox-Westerlo in our area is typical of small, rural school districts across the state. The district was acutely aware of declining enrollment in 2005 when it commissioned a study from Cornell University that predicted a drop from 1,100 students that year to as low as 792 in 2013.

At issue in 2005 was whether BKW should close the elementary school in Westerlo, where enrollment was predicted to drop from 56 students in 2001 to 31 by 2009. BKW closed the school, which now serves as Westerlo’s town hall.

With “hold harmless” enacted a decade-and-a-half ago, BKW’s state aid has increased over those years, its student enrollment has continued to decline. With 655 current students — grades range in size from 40 third-graders to 61 tenth-graders — the rural district now has about half as many students as it did a quarter-century ago.

Surely, with half as many students, a reduction in staff could be expected, but this is not the case.

Mind you, we have nothing but praise for how BKW has spent its funds. With generous state aid, a capital project has updated the schools so that students have more tech advantages than some of their counterparts in presumably wealthy nearby suburban districts.

During the pandemic, in 2022, we wrote about New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli’s examination of mental health resources in schools statewide.

His report cited the American Psychological Association’s findings that over 80 percent of teens experienced more intense school-related stress due to COVID-19.

Most of the state’s 686 districts outside of New York City entered the pandemic with mental health teams that were far short of nationally recommended staff-to-student ratios, DiNapoli’s audit showed.

The recommended ratio for school counselors is one for every 250 students. Among the districts we cover, only BKW came close to meeting that mark with three counselors and a ratio of 1:251.

Voorheesville, which a quarter-century ago had about the same enrollment as BKW, has grown to 1,180 students. DiNapoli’s report said, with four counselors, Voorheesville had a ratio of 1:295.

Suburban Guilderland’s ratio was even further off the mark: Guilderland, with 4,841 students, had 13 counselors for a ratio of 1:372.

We don’t begrudge BKW the smaller classes and more counselors than the other schools we cover; we commend the district for spending wisely on worthwhile services.

But, if there is just a limited amount of money for state aid, it has to be divided fairly. Under Hochul’s proposal for Foundation Aid, about half the districts statewide — 336 — would get more aid and about half would get less: 337 districts.

In presenting her budget, Hochul stated, for kindergarten through 12th-grade enrollment statewide, there has been a 12-percent decline over the last decade.

She also noted that New York spends much more per student on education than it ever has before and “vastly” more than other states. The United States Census Bureau puts per-pupil spending nationwide at about $14,000.

Hochul called it “common sense” to allot money based on current enrollment rather than enrollment from a decade-and-a-half ago.

We believe the trend of declining enrollment will continue in future years as nationwide the birth rate is in decline — affecting preschool to college programs — and New York in particular is losing population faster than any other state.

Save harmless is a Band-Aid that won’t be able to cover all the wounds of declining enrollment.

In Albany County, the Voorheesville district is a rare exception with increasing enrollment as the town is undergoing a housing boom. But, if all the schools in New York that will lose enrollment were, into the future, to continue to be held harmless, the cost would rapidly increase.

We can see this illustrated clearly using BKW as an example. A quarter-century ago, in 1997-98, BKW spent $9,592 per pupil while the statewide average was $9,810. So, BKW was below the statewide average.

But in 2022-23, BKW spent about $28,000 per pupil while the state average was about $24,000. So, after years of being held harmless while enrollment decreased, BKW is now $4,000 above the per-pupil statewide average.

We’re not advocating cuts. We had a front-row seat covering the cuts the Guilderland schools had to make during the Great Recession. The suburban district dipped into its fund balance since the state had phased out aid to districts through the gap elimination adjustment.

With the shortfall in state aid, Guilderland cut many positions and also drew on its reserves. From 2010 to 2014, Guilderland cut over 150 full-time posts as it tried to close a gap left by stagnant state aid; declining property values; and increasing salary, health, and pension costs.

It wasn’t pretty. Some of the programs — like foreign-language instruction in the elementary grades — never came back. (Although this year, an innovative pilot program has Guilderland High School students teaching world languages to some fourth-graders.)

One of the parents at a packed Guilderland budget forum in 2014 — the forum was titled “Still in Peril” — was the father of four daughters. He said he moved to Guilderland for the schools and he now had “a general sense of dismay.” He said that his daughter entering elementary school would not be getting the same education as his daughter who was about to graduate from high school.

Some parents and teachers lobbied for special-needs; others lobbied for gifted students. Some pushed to keep advanced courses while others said those courses could be better cut than expanding class sizes.

No one wants to see their community live in a general sense of dismay. No one wants to see valued staffers lose their jobs. No one wants to see one school district pitted against another.

We believe, if the state funds are indeed limited, the solution lies not in pushing to maintain the status quo but, rather, in having legislators hammer out a new formula for Foundation Aid.

According to the state comptroller’s report for fiscal stress, for this year, 12 percent of Voorheesville students are considered economically disadvantaged while 19 percent of Guilderland students are, and 32 percent of BKW students are. Voorheesville has 1-percent English language learners, Guilderland has 6 percent, and BKW has none.

The student-to-teacher ratio at Voorheesville is 1:13.10, at Guilderland is 1:11.26, and at BKW is 1:8.73.

The current Foundation Aid formula was designed to account for what it costs a district to educate each student, with more money allocated for districts that have more economically disadvantaged students, or more students with disabilities, or more students from other countries learning English.

The formula also takes into account how much money a district can raise locally.

Adjusting that formula to adequately meet the needs of a district like BKW is the way to go rather than to continue with the stop-gap measure of “save harmless,” which will only balloon statewide as enrollment across New York declines.

Foundation Aid is, after all, just what its name implies — it is the groundwork on which schooling is built. Our state’s top court decided that New York is to provide a sound basic education to each student in its public schools.

This school year, that edict was finally met. Let us not backslide from here. If our government cannot come up with more funds, let us ensure that what is available is distributed fairly to best meet the needs of each and every student.

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