The Schenectady School District received $7.5 million more in state foundation aid, enabling programs for student well-being and teacher growth. Geoff Redick reports.

SCHENECTADY, N.Y. — After years of state funding shortfalls leading to tax increases and program cuts, the Schenectady School District is making up some ground.

The district learned over the weekend that it would receive an additional $7.5 million in state foundation aid this budget season, part of a $1 billion increase in education funding agreed upon by state legislators and the governor. The extra money will be budgeted for program improvements leading to better student care, improved class offerings, and more training for teachers.

"It's a pretty good step forward, about 15 percent of what's owed to us," said Superintendent Larry Spring on Monday.

Spring has long railed against the state's "foundation aid" funding mechanism, which has rarely paid districts the full measure of what its own formulas supposedly guarantee. The economic recession of 2008 contributed to the funding shortfalls, and the state has sturggled to make up for lost funding in the years since.

During the period of downturn in state funding, Schenectady has received little more than half of what it was owed under the foundation formula. In 2016, Spring says the state withheld $51 million; this year it will be only $44 million. If the current trend of funding increase continues, Spring expects that Schenectady could be fully and fairly funded -- within six or seven years.

"What most districts in our situation ask is for the state to get us up to full funding," Spring said, "so that we can provide for these kids. Now."

With the new money, Schenectady does plan to provide more. Chief among a slate of new initiatives will be a "mobile crisis team" made up of two social workers and a psychiatric nurse practitioner. The team will handle a rising number of mental health cases in city schools, and respond to events involving extreme emotional distress or student safety issues.    

Spring also plans to create a number of classrooms specifically designed to help those students with social and emotional disorders. In addition, a significant portion of the new funding will pay for enhanced teacher training and curriculum improvements, as well as hiring several new assistant principals.

Spring expects to lower the citywide school tax levy by approximately $1 million in the current budget, which will be up for a public vote on May 16.

"The best strategy to ensure that cities like Schenectady have a good economic development plan," he said, "is to help them lower property taxes."

Still, with his school district remaining $44 million behind on state funding, Spring expects to charge forward with his groundbreaking civil rights awsuit against the state. The action, filed in 2013, claims the foundation aid model is inherently racist since it underfunds urban school districts with heavily minority populations.

"But I'm really glad that we're starting to see some movement towards closing the gap," Spring said Monday.