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Assemblywoman Russell introduces school funding equity act

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POTSDAM - Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell, D-Theresa, is reintroducing legislation to smooth out inequalities in the state’s school aid formula and break what she calls political manipulation that has unfairly favored wealthy downstate school districts over poorer upstate districts.

During a Friday press conference in Watertown, Mrs. Russell said the School Funding Equity Act, which aims at equal access to basic education guaranteed in the state constitution, includes seven provisions that will:

n Calculate aid based on data collected within the last five years to help school districts experiencing fluctuation.

n Calculate the average cost of general education by using spending data from all but the top 10 percent and bottom 10 percent of schools.

n Place more emphasis on students who qualify for free and reduced lunch, shifting the formula for determining aid from a model based on property tax to one based on how many poor students actually attend a school.

n Eliminate the provision that all school districts are required to receive a minimum amount of school aid.

n Call for the regional cost index in the formula to be updated to reflect current data.

n Expand the scale by which districts receive aid. Under the current law, the scale goes from 0.65 to 2. The poorest districts must round up their actual ranking to the 0.65 number, even if they fall lower on the scale. Wealthy districts must round down to 2, even if they reach higher on the scale. Mrs. Russell’s legislation will increase the wealth ratio from a 2 to a 3 and allow schools with wealth ratios below 0.65 and above 0.25 to use their actual wealth ratio, giving a truer picture of the economic situation in the district.

n Eliminate automatic increases in aid to school districts that do not need those funds. Under the proposed legislation, districts will be guaranteed to receive only 85 percent of the funds received in the previous year in an effort to start reclaiming funds and redistributing them to low-wealth, high-need districts.

It’s an issue that has been on the minds of St. Lawrence County school superintendentm, including Potsdam’s Patrick H. Brady, in recent years as he have grappled with increasingly difficult budget decisions.

“I appreciate the efforts of Assemblywoman Russell to continue to raise the issue of inequities in funding,” Mr. Brady said. “We need to sound this alarm as many schools are facing dire circumstances, while others, who are fortunate enough to be locate in areas of wealth are not impacted.”

Referring to the usage of old data in calculating a district’s wealth, something Ms. Russell’s bill would eliminate, Mr. Brady said, “This has been a major problem, as a lot of the data the state uses is 10 years old. I like the idea of using more current and relevant numbers and also lowering the floor on the wealth to income ratio,” he said. “The current way makes districts who are not wealthy appear wealthier than they really are and in turn not get their fair share of aid.”

Mr. Brady said the key now will be getting the necessary support in both the Assembly and the Senate to pass the bill.“I’m sure Albany politics will come into play,” Mr. Brady said.

The bill was first introduced last year but did not make it out of the committee process.

Mrs. Russell said she hopes to get her proposed changes into the 2013-14 budget before it is enacted into law. She said the bill, which she said will “help the north country but also address inequalities throughout the state,” will be helped by a new bipartisan governing coalition, called the Independent Democratic Conference, in the state Senate.

In December, a group of dissenting Democrats broke ranks to join forces with Republicans to run the state Senate. They took power away from the Democrats, who were projected to have the majority stake.

“Most of the state is hurt by the current funding system,” Mrs. Russell said, adding that powerful downstate senators often manipulate the current formula to benefit their districts.

“These wealthy districts just happen to have the most senior members of the Republican coalition,” she said.

The new power-sharing arrangement is considered an opportunity to break partisan gridlock and move the School Funding Equity Act forward because Republicans now must incorporate the desires of Democrats and downstate senators must account for the wishes of upstate senators.

Mark A. Pacilio, chief of staff for Mrs. Russell, said the bill has had some interest from downstate Sen. David Carlucci, D-Rockland, who is a member of the bipartisan coalition, and likely will be assigned to the education committee in coming weeks.

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