After hard fight for K-12 funding, North Country schools catch their breath

Apr 19, 2017

Gov. Andrew Cuomo got a lot of what he wanted in the state budget passed earlier this month. But the governor didn't get his way when it came to funding for K-12 education.

He wanted to scrap the basic formula for determining how much funding schools will get – called foundation aid. Lawmakers decided to keep that in place. They also added more than a billion dollars to the funding pot, which comes after years of financial cuts at the K-12 level.

In the North Country, a lot of school administrators said they're grateful to receive extra money. But they're not about to start pumping up their budgets as a result.

How far does $860k go in Gouverneur?

Carol LaSala, the business manager for Gouverneur Central School District, said she was all for an increase in state funding.

"Well, we always like more money," LaSala laughed. "So that’s a good thing."

Next year, Gouverneur's district will receive an extra $860,000, which is a lot, considering they have just 1,500 students enrolled. Gouverneur prides itself on keeping class sizes small, LaSala said. But that became a challenge around 2010, when lawmakers decided to start cutting back on school funding to help fill a statewide budget deficit.

"The major thing that had been cut were teaching positions," LaSala said. "We were constantly moving some teachers around due to the actual enrollment. We would truly look at our enrollment numbers and say, 'Okay. I think this year we can do with only five at grade 2.’ And then the following year, we would have to adjust that."

Now that lawmakers have let up on the funding cuts and put more money aside for education, it seems obvious where Gouverneur’s money might go. But when asked if they'll be able to add more teachers, LaSala hesitated.

"Actually, I don’t think we are," she said. Instead, the district will focus on replacing staff members who are poised for retirement. New teaching positions are off the table.

Half a teacher for Norwood-Norfolk

That’s the story all across the region. Despite this long-awaited increase in their funding, school administrators are still moving cautiously — bordering on stingy.

Norwood-Norfolk Central School District is getting an additional $350,000 in state aid next year. But Superintendent Jamie Cruikshank said he’s only adding one thing to his budget.

"I’m going to be asking the [local] Board of Education to approve the addition of a half-time music teacher," Cruikshank said. "We have had a half-time shared teacher in that capacity. We are looking at making that a full-time district position."

Fed up with foundation aid

Cruikshank said there’s a good reason why he’s not taking more risks right now, such as hiring more staff or adding new programs.

Like a lot school districts in the North Country, Norwood-Norfolk does not getting most of its money from local taxpayers. Most of its money comes from the state through the formula known as foundation aid. It came out of a court settlement, and it was designed to make school funding more fair.

The formula has only been around for a decade. But in that time, Cruikshank said, it’s started to become a political football.

"Yes, it’s very difficult to plan when 70 percent of your revenue is really at the discretion of politicians — well-meaning politicians," Cruikshank said. "The governor has stated that he doesn’t really believe in the foundation aid formula."

A new formula, "at the mercy of whoever"

This year, Cuomo said he wanted to throw it out and come up with a different system. He didn’t offer many details. For some lawmakers, giving the state total freedom to revamp school funding felt like a big risk.

Veteran educator James Kettrick said he agreed.

"You’re far less transparent and you’re kind of at the mercy of whoever is behind putting together some new formula to decide where aid is distributed throughout the state," Kettrick said. "And it’s always a source of tension."

Kettrick has spent the last four decades working for the Indian River School District, where he's now superintendent. Indian River is one of the bigger districts in the North Country, with more than 4,000 students. There are lots of military kids with parents at Fort Drum, so classrooms are constantly emptying out and filling up with new faces.

A veteran educator's wish list

With all those dynamics at play, Kettrick said it can be hard to plan ahead.

Indian River is expecting an extra $1.6 million from the state next year under the new budget. But Kettrick said what he really wants right now are some better conversations among lawmakers about their vision for K-12 education.

"I know we’ve been under a lot of fire for the last few years, that somehow we’re awash with money and we’re not effective," Kettrick said. "That’s simply not the case. Public school is very vibrant in New York state. It is something that is more than a dream. It has been a reality in this country for so long."

Kettrick said it just needs to be funded in a way that’s predictable — and also transparent.