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Still no relief for rural schools

Friday, February 22, 2013 - Updated: 5:09 PM

With Gov. Andrew Cuomo, it appears his policies are all about appearances. He wants to appear fiscally responsible while also appearing to care about education, so he passes a tax cap while continuing to insist on higher standards and new mandates, such as teacher evaluations.

While he's busy trying to look good, rural school districts (like most of the ones in our area) are being squeezed in a pincer of rising costs and falling revenue.

Cuomo trumpets his budgetary achievements while school districts upstate slide toward insolvency. Is the governor going to wait until rural schools reach a state of emergency before acknowledging the inequities in the way state aid is distributed?

The first problem is, because of the way schools are funded, wealthy districts in places like Long Island are much less dependent on state aid than poor districts in places such as Montgomery County.

A school on Long Island, surrounded by private properties worth millions of dollars -- each -- has a strong tax base from which to draw its funding. State aid is a welcome supplement in such a district, but not the critical source of operating funds, as it is in poor rural districts.

When state education aid gets cut, as it has in the past decade, poor districts suffer more than rich ones, because the poor districts are more reliant on state aid and less able to absorb cuts.

This is a longstanding structural problem tied to the way New York funds public education through property taxes. But the problems for rural districts have gotten much worse under Cuomo's administration.

The promises made as the governor pushed his tax cap a couple of years ago were that it would be followed by mandate relief and perhaps also by a circuit-breaker law, which would limit the percentage of a property owner's income that could go toward property taxes. No attempt to keep those promises has been made.

So rural school districts, which were never flush with cash, are now under tremendous pressure, caught between the tax cap on one side and state mandates on the other.

The governor has touted an increase in education aid in the coming year's budget, but what he doesn't talk about it is something called the "gap elimination adjustment," which he used to close the state's budget gap on the back of local school districts.

This adjustment takes state aid away from schools, district by district, and uses it to balance the state's books. How much gets taken from each district depends on the state's determination of a district's wealth, based on the income of its residents and the value of its land.

The formula can get skewed in rural districts that are land-rich and cash-poor. The sale of a few beautiful old farms for high prices can make a place appear, on paper, richer than it is, resulting in more money getting grabbed back by the state. It sounds dry, but before your eyes glaze over, consider the consequences we've seen in local districts: cuts to teachers and programs.

Residents can override the tax cap, but most cannot afford to pay bills that go up by 10 or 20 percent -- many struggle to pay their property taxes now. At the same time, we are all impoverished by failing to offer our kids a good education.

Gov. Cuomo's approach is hurting, if not killing, the state's rural school districts. We're not asking for the state to spend more, but we are demanding what the state spends be distributed fairly, according to equitable formulas that account for the circumstances of each district.

Gov. Cuomo owes the people of the state more than blanket policies geared more to making himself look good than helping the state prosper.

-- The Glens Falls Post-Star

     

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