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Letter: ‘School Budget Season’

It’s that time of year again. Long Island school districts begin the frustrating process of budget development where residents believe their votes have little impact. Taxes seem to go up each year, while there are constant threats of cuts to children’s programs, especially after school activities and buses. The 2012-13 budgets will likely be more frustrating than in recent decades due to the two percent tax cap, State budget deficits and child poverty on Long Island.

For years we’ve heard that Long Islanders do not get their fair share of state school aid but the recent rise in child poverty on Long Island helps underscore a much more serious problem: its negative impact on our children’s education. It is well known that socioeconomic factors have almost twice the impact on a child’s education than the quality of their schools. Teachers routinely complain that the kids that need the most help have (apparently) missing parents. What Albany doesn’t realize is that a growing number of working class families on Long Island tend to have both parents working, often at more than one job. If instead these working class families got an appropriate level of state school aid, perhaps they could spend more time with their children and truly have a beneficial impact on their education.

New York State provides close to the nationwide average of 56 percent funding from state and federal sources. Yet Long Island schools get less, significantly less than the average. For example, the working class community of Hicksville gets only 15 percent aid, while the upstate school district of Elmira gets 70 percent aid but has similar size, demographics and cost per student as Hicksville? This large inequity in state aid is due to the arcane state aid formula that equates ability to pay school taxes with the book value of your home; it’s called the wealth factor!

Worse yet, Westbury, the third poorest school district on Long Island in 2010 received only 22 percent state aid. Adding insult to injury, many homes in Westbury are underwater due to the collapse of the real estate bubble. Yet the state considers Westbury residents to be about four times as wealthy as upstate Elmira residents even though Westbury homes are only about half the size of their upstate brethren.

The great irony is that the wealth formula intended to help working class communities is actually hurting Long Island communities who end up paying for two schools districts. With real estate taxes we pay for our schools, with state income tax we pay for upstate schools. To correct this basic unfairness I propose that state school funding be done on a regional basis. I do not dispute that poorer districts should get more funding than rich districts but the value of one’s home should not be used to measure wealth across 400 miles of a widely disparate state. Let’s make sure that both upstate or downstate school districts get a fair share of state funding to help children obtain a good education and help keep at least one parent in the house to help with homework. If done on a regional basis, a district such as Westbury would get 70 percent aid, Hicksville would get about 50 percent, currently 12 percent, and very wealthy school districts would get about the same level of aid as they currently get.

Phil Heckler
Hicksville School Board Candidate