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. The meeting was headed by State Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Shelley Mayer, of Port Chester; 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 a huge growth in the immigrant population in some districts, as well as an increase in the number of unfunded mandates at both the state and federal level,” Seaford Sen. John Brooks said. 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.
Where offsets are needed, enrichment programs are usually first on the block. Brentwood Superintendent Richard Loeschner said his district offers no art or music programs. Even with the cuts, though, massive losses in state funding — more than $20 million in the past 10 years — led last year to a19 percent increase in his district’s tax levy.
Farmingdale teacher and New York State Union of Teachers local 1889 President Cordelia Anthony described how such challenges can lead to social and emotional issues for students. But students are not the only losers. “We’re seeing more and more cases of teacher burnout as they struggle to offer quality education in the face of these resource constraints,” she said.
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.
Brooks explained: “Two families have $500,000 houses side by side. The houses are exactly the same, but one family owns their home, while their neighbor has a $400,000 mortgage.” In other cases, seniors may have paid off their mortgages years ago on properties that were modestly priced at the time. “Now, the home they bought 60 years ago for $8,000 is worth $800,000, and they can’t afford the taxes,” he said.
Still, some districts have found ways to increase the amount of state support they receive. In Seaford, roughly 10 percent of the district’s 2019-20 revenue is expected to come from foundation aid, according to Superintendent Dr. Adele Pecora. But the district has been able to boost support by an additional 7 percent through the use of strategic expenditures for programs like those provided by BOCES, she said.
Few long-term solutions were on the table last week. Districts have always relied heavily on property taxes, despite their regressive nature, but other sources of revenue are difficult to identify. A study released last year by the Long Island Regional Planning Council entitled “Tax Alternatives for Long Island” explored a variety of possibilities for a more progressive and equitable approach to school financing but could offer no one-size-fits-all solution. The council did suggest a combination of options, however, including a surcharge on plastic bags; an excise tax on sugared drinks; and a modest increase in the county’s sales tax. Taken together, these options might generate as much as a half-billion dollars in additional revenue, council Chairman John Cameron of Rockville Centre said when the report was released last April.
Another proposal — Brooks’ so-called 50-50 plan — is beginning to gain traction in Albany as well. Under this scheme, districts would rely on property taxes for no more than 50 percent of their budgets, with the remaining half coming from the state. The plan would add an estimated $36 billion to the state’s budget, and many of the details remain to be worked out. For example, an increase in state funding could ease the burden on taxpayers, but it would not automatically narrow the gap between rich and poor districts. And Long Islanders are unlikely to have much appetite for any form of revenue enhancement that comes out of their pockets.
On one point, though, all the meeting’s attendees agreed: The current system needs more than tinkering; it needs wholesale change.