Nassau County’s Democratic state senators met with representatives from Nassau and Suffolk county school districts at Seaford Middle School last week to discuss the state’s troubled system of school finance. State Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Shelley Mayer, of Port Chester, headed the meeting; John Liu, chairman of the Senate’s New York City Education Committee, joined the discussion aimed at exploring alternatives or fixes to the current system of foundation aid.
Foundation aid refers to money the state provides to its 674 school districts, based on a formula that calculates each district’s per capita cost of living and the education needs of its students. In theory, the neediest districts — those with the smallest commercial property tax bases or the highest number of special needs students — would receive more than wealthier districts. But rapidly changing demographics have complicated the picture in recent years. In addition, the aid formula cannot account for some of the complexities besetting many districts.
For example, Glen Cove superintendent Dr. Maria Rianna suggested that the rise in immigrant populations did not mean such students could be served simply by providing instruction in English as a New Language (ENL). She cited the case of a 17-year-old freshman in her district who also had significant cognitive deficits in his first language, due to disruptions to his schooling in his native country.
“We need a more nuanced formula that can take these special needs into account,” Mayer said. “Demographically, we’re a very different place than we were 10 years ago.”
“There’s been an influx of new immigrants in Glen Cove and other districts, and the schools and state have an obligation to teach them,” State Sen. Jim Gaughran added. “We were able to get an increase in foundation aid for Glen Cove this year, and we hope to do it again.”
With the enactment of the permanent 2 percent cap on increases to the property tax levy, beefing up programs like ENL or adding other remedial programs inevitably requires districts to identify offsets if they are to avoid piercing the cap. And the $10,000 limit on state and local tax (SALT) deductions imposed as part of President Trump’s 2017 tax plan hit Long Island residents particularly hard, so that they are less willing to consider piercing the cap.
Rockville Centre Superintendent Dr. Bill Johnson pointed out that the current system of foundation aid plus property tax can sometimes create “an artificial sense of more wealth in a community than there is.” This is because the value of a family’s home is not necessarily indicative of its financial condition.
This was the case in Glen Cove, which was part of the “Harmed Suburban Five” school districts, which received about 50 percent or less of the maximum potential aid it should have gotten. Gaughran explained that the disproportionately large amount of wealth in a small collection of the Glen Cove’s families overshadows the needs of the rest of the city’s residents. This gives Glen Cove an illusion of wealth in the eye of the state, making it seem as though the district does not need as much funding as it actually does. “We need to change the formula the state uses to assign foundation aid to include these factors.”
While the leaders debated on possible solutions throughout the meeting, on one point, though, all the meeting’s attendees agreed: The current system needs more than tinkering; it needs wholesale change.
Ronny Reyes contributed to this story