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Budget news & information

Fact Check: New York’s schools, the state budget & rhetoric

In his Feb. 16 open letter about school funding, Governor Cuomo encouraged the state’s citizens to “focus on the facts instead of overheated rhetoric.” As the state budget winds its way toward passage, it’s important to fact check some recent statements about schools, funding and academic performance. With resources dwindling, leaders at every level have difficult choices to make. Yet, New Yorkers deserve nothing less than an accurate picture of the environment in which these decisions are made.

 

Fact?
New York ranks 1st in the nation in spending per student, and 34th in student achievement.

Fact Check
The claim that New York ranks first in spending but 34th in performance has been reported far and wide since the Governor included it in his State of the State address. It turns out the reference comes from a somewhat obscure 2007 U.S. Census report measuring the percentage of all adults who possess a high school degree. So, the measure looks at the educational attainment of people older than 25, some who attended school as far back as the 1930s and earlier. (It would also include residents who attended school in other states and countries, as well as those who might not have attended school at all.) This can hardly be called a fair, accurate or comprehensive reflection of today’s schools.

However, such a measure does exist in Education Week’s annual “Quality Counts” report, which came out within days of the Governor’s remarks. The report showed that New York’s schools rank 2nd in the nation on a comprehensive analysis of policy and performance. The state’s schools earned an overall grade of B, second only to Maryland, which earned a grade of B+.

 

Fact?
School districts have enough in reserves to absorb the proposed $1.5 billion reduction in state aid to education without any cuts to programs or loss of teachers and staff.

Fact Check
Statements to this effect gained some momentum recently with a report from New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli’s office. What many people neglected to notice was this sentence from the same report: “Many districts that could use reserves to completely cover aid cuts would deplete all or most of their reserves in a single-school year in order to do so. This one-time fix would severely limit their flexibility to deal with future challenges.”

There are 15 types of reserves that are authorized by state law and Guilderland currently utilizes seven of them: Unemployment insurance, workers compensation, tax certiorari, retirement contribution, repairs reserve, employee benefit accrued liability and capital reserve. Each one of these reserves was established for the purposes of creating different savings accounts to pay for specific future expenses. The budget appropriation for each of these reserves cannot reasonably exceed anticipated expenses—meaning the district cannot hoard money in these accounts. Having these reserves mitigates the need to cut services or raise taxes for specific large expenses.

The district also has an undesignated fund balance reserve, which is for any money that is remaining at the end of each fiscal year. School districts use these funds for emergencies or other unforeseen occurrences. There is a cap on how much a district can have in this account. Additionally, a portion of the undesignated fund balance is typically transferred each year into the designated fund balance to be applied toward the general fund budget.

In other words, every year the district uses a portion of its reserves to keep taxes down and/or preserve programs.

Everyone, from the Governor on down, has identified school funding as a multi-year problem that requires long-term thinking. Given the history of state aid—mid-year cuts, major decreases and delays—it is irresponsible and unrealistic to suggest that school districts complete deplete their reserves right now.

Further, for the purposes of next year’s budget, the figures the Governor and others cited in the DiNapoli report are a year old. They represent how much school districts had on hand at the beginning of this year — before many districts began spending down their savings to absorb a loss of funding. Many school districts will continue this practice next year while hoping to retain some money in reserves to help navigate continued fiscal challenges.

 

Fact?
The Governor’s budget only cuts state spending for education by 2.9 percent.

Fact Check
According to the Governor’s budget materials, overall state budget expenditures for education under his proposal would be reduced from $20.925 billion in the current year to $19.390 in the next year. That is a reduction of 7.3 percent, not 2.9 percent as his statements have suggested.
 
The 2.9 percent figure comes from taking the total state aid reduction proposed by the Governor as a percentage of total spending by all school districts on education. This calculation is new to the process this year.

State aid only pays for a portion of school district’s budgets. Each dollar of lost state aid—regardless of what percentage of the total budget it is—has to be made up for, usually through program cuts or tax increases.

 

Fact?
New York’s school districts’ budgets are filled with waste, fraud and abuse.

Fact Check
Last year, New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli announced the completion of audits of every single school district and BOCES in New York over the previous five years. Of the 733 audits, he found evidence of fraud at 19 of them—less than 3 percent of New York’s school systems.

The $7.7 million in “fraud” in these few individual districts would help make up for less than half of 1 percent of the Governor’s proposed reduction in aid to the state’s schools.

The dishonorable actions of a few do not represent the entire system. DiNapoli had complete access to the books of every single district in the state, and had this to say at the end of the process: “Most school districts, like most public institutions, are generally well run.”

 

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