Small schools await decision in appeal seeking state aid formula change

Sep 11, 2017

For eight years, a case has wandered through New York's court system: impoverished small cities suing Albany, saying the state's system for allocating school aid is not fair to them. The districts and their lawyers are not giving up, appealing a dismissal of their cases.

Overall, not a lot of money is involved, but it is a lot of money to the districts.

A lawyer for the districts, cities like Jamestown and Niagara Falls, described them as the "poorest districts in the state." School Superintendents in both cities say not enough money comes in from Albany to pay for educational programs and efforts that might help kids out of poverty. They also say the uncertainties of the annual budget process mean all school districts cannot plan well.

"Predictability of an $80 million budget and 5,000 students. It's frustrating not to be able to plan out long term," said Jamestown Schools Superintendent Bret Apthorpe. "We should be able to and I think it should be an expectation of the public for public schools to be able to be firm and crisp about their long term planning. But when you don't know what your revenues going to be, year to year, it's almost like wishful thinking."

The lawsuit seeks back payments and more money every year in the aid formula to limit the effects of poverty. With 34 years working in the Niagara Falls school system, Superintendent Mark Laurrie says the district has cut to the bone in a tough situation.

"We have tried to stay furthest away from any cuts to the classroom, but we have needs beyond the regular school district needs, in terms of providing counseling and social work and school psychologists and health services to our kids that you don't usually find in a more affluent school district," Laurrie said.

He says the problem is getting worse as poverty worsens.

"The landscape has really, really changed from 1984 when I began to starting this year," he says. "We've seen a decline in our population. We've seen a decline in the income level of the folks here. We've seen a restructuring of families. Many of our families, children are being raised by grandparents and great-grandparents."

Apthorpe says another problem is that poor kids do not receive proper nutrition.

"Their meals came from our school," he says. "In fact, in both school districts, we have a backpack program where we send backpacks of food home with kids, food provided by the federal government, and those backpacks of food will probably be their only meals for the weekend."

Apthorpe says he saw the food problem in his prior post as Superintendent of Frontier Central Schools in Hamburg, but not to the degree of Jamestown. He says more money also would help with basic issues, like dropping out because of cash-limited vocational offerings.

"Providing those opportunities for our kids to learn skill sets that will put them in the trades," Apthorpe says. "Right now, we have kids who they might drop out because they can't pass global history and they become a dropout and a burden on the community. Whereas, if we had the funding, we could help train those kids to be electricians and welders and plumbers and machinists."

Apthorpe says the Jamestown area pays a price for those dropouts, tens of millions of dollars. Laurrie says his district is starting at the other end of the educational spectrum.

"We are full-day pre-K," Laurrie says. "I think we need full day pre-K for three-year-olds because if we want to see a real change in moving the test score needle we have to start them even earlier in a city that has an 80 percent poverty rate."

It is unclear when their appeal will be decided.