School Budget Series: Urban schools struggle to overcome crowding and poverty

May 8, 2012

Urban schools in New York state face a special challenge. These schools need more funding to teach larger numbers of children, many of whom need special services because of poverty. At the same time, they find themselves dependent on local governments that are also going through tough budget times.

Eight hundred students attend kindergarten through eighth grade in the  H.W. Smith school that stands in the shadow of LeMoyne College on Syracuse's east side. Flags of dozens of nations line the windows because of its large immigrant population.

Principal Sharon Birnkrant says her building is watching staff dwindle as the Syracuse City School District continues laying off employees as a way to dig out of a multi-million dollar budget deficit.

Birnkrant doesn't like the cuts, but copes with them. She cites some problems associated with the cuts, like larger class sizes and increased responsibility.

"I personally provide AIS, Academic Intervention Services, for fourth grade. And my vice principals do too, and my in-school suspension person provides support.  We mobilize all the staff we have to do what's best for kids," said Birnkrant.

It's the same story across the district, which Chief Fiscal Officer Suzanne Slack describes as essentially bankrupt.

"At the end of this year we'll essentially be out of fund balance.  By the end of next year, we'll also be out of cash,” Slack said.

Syracuse is the smallest of the so- called "big five" urban districts in New York state.  Unlike other independent districts, Syracuse, Buffalo, Rochester, Yonkers and New York City, are dependent on their respective cities for funding.  Budgets are not approved by the community, but by the legislative and executive branches of their cities.

This means that the budgets aren't affected by the tax cap. But it also means they can't raise taxes independently and end up sharing funds in a cash-strapped city budget. So ultimately the answer to making ends meet is state aid and therein lies the rub, says Slack; a complicated state aid formula that distributes the $20 billion New York state spends every year on education.

Some say it favors more wealthy suburban districts which have more political clout.

"I don't think they need to spend more overall.  But they need to look at where they're driving those dollars to.  So if there are wealthy districts that can be sustained on the tax base locally, they should not be getting a large piece of state aid.  And they should reallocate the dollars to the districts that are most needy," said Slack.

Change in a hyper-political state capitol, though, is never easy.  State Senator Dave Valesky of the 49th district says there's legislation he supports that would change the way aid is allocated.

"The proposal would restructure how state aid is delivered to school districts based on directing more aid to low wealth, high need school districts as is the case here in the city of Syracuse," said Valesky. 

But he admits politics often gets in the way in Albany.

"Much of it gets caught up between upstate/downstate, and Long Island and Hudson Valley; versus rural upstate and urban upstate. So we've got to get through all of that and hopefully with some leadership from Governor (Andrews) Cuomo we can get to the day where we can get this finally fixed,"  said Valesky.

Sharon Birnkrant isn't quite so optimistic after listening to reports about the debate over federal Race to the Top funds in Albany.

"They were talking about it going to urban schools and they said, ‘Wait a minute, those schools in Long Island and Westchester, those people pay a lot of money for school taxes, and they should get part of it.’ I mean, come on. You can't compare. When I'm hearing that on the news, I'm hearing there's not a real understanding of the challenges urban schools face," Birnkrant said.

So back in the hallways of H.W. Smith, Birnkrant does what she can with what she has.

"I'll do whatever I have to do to make sure our kids get a quality education.  If that means that I have to teach a group, hey, I've been a teacher. I'll do what I have to do. If it means a class has 30 in it, I'll beg the teacher to take 31 and 32.  We'll do it. It's not what I like, it's not the kind of quality I want, but I can't deny the child what they need academically because our legislators don't have the ability to put priorities where they belong."

About WRVO's School Budget Series:

On May 15, voters across the state go to the polls to vote on their school districts' budgets. This week, we take a look at the way the budget vote works, the budget problems New York schools are facing, and the issues facing urban, suburban and rural districts.

Tomorrow, we take a look at the Syracuse suburbs. With the vote on the school budget less than a week away, everyone is reminded that money is crunched and tough decisions are being made. Some families moved to the suburbs for the highly regarded education and would consider leaving if class sizes started to increase. A look at the suburban budget tomorrow during Morning Edition.