During a budget crunch, priorities matter. Albany, however, has consistently allowed political expedience to trump fairness and equity when it comes to setting priorities for school funding. Albany's initial response to the New York State budget crisis suggests "more of the same," when it comes to the distribution of school aid.
As school districts in our region plan budgets for the 2011-2012 year, they face the most challenging circumstances ever encountered by New York State public schools. The school boards at Silver Creek and Forestville realize that we have a role to play in helping our state meet its budget challenges. We have tightened our belts, during the past three years of aid freezes and aid reductions, and are now preparing to draw on fund balance and reserves as we attempt to "do more with less." Yet the levels of reductions in 2011-2012 aid that the Governor's draft budget has imposed are devastating. Furthermore, although the Governor has promised mandate relief for schools, so far the promises are empty. This will fuel an even greater crisis in future years.
The crisis is even more acute for schools in our county. As compared to the rest of the state, Chautauqua County Schools are experiencing an aid reduction of $1,297 per student in the Governor's proposal - 27 percent above the average reduction in aid for New York State districts. Meanwhile, in wealthy downstate counties such as Nassau County, the average aid reduction is $722 per student - 29 percent below the average aid reduction in New York State.
Big problems exist in the distribution of school aid. School funding gaps between low-property wealth communities and wealthy communities' schools are not only inequitable-they are unjust. New York State's Foundation Aid formula was first established in the 2007-2008 school year as an attempt to address these inequities. Political compromises between upstate and downstate regions, however, resulted in a formula based on state geographic regions far more than school communities' needs. This distribution of education aid based on "regional shares," rather than the economic needs of school systems, puts the interests of privileged communities above the interests of all students in our state.
The leadership of our region's state legislators during this budget negotiation is vitally important to the future of public education in Chautauqua County. Given that both the Assembly and Senate's "one house" budget proposals restore between 200-265 million dollars in aid, it is apparent that the legislature will look to provide some measure of limited relief to schools. That being said, how this aid is restored is the issue. Republicans in the Senate, in particular, are in a unique position to influence this budget negotiation. With the Senate Republican caucus holding a 32-30 majority, an alliance of legislators representing lower-wealth rural communities has the ability to focus Albany on the inequity in state aid cuts. We urge our state legislators to fight to ensure that restorations are provided only to schools with average or below average property wealth. Our elected representatives in the legislature must take advantage of this opportunity.
John O'Connor is superintendent of Forestville Central School District. David O'Rourke is superintendent at Silver Creek Central School District.