Most public schools in New York are funded in two ways: State aid via the out-of-date Foundation Aid formula, and local property taxes. 

If you live in a rural district where the tax base is stagnant or shrinking, the school district that serves your community will end up having to rely more heavily on state aid money, which can be precarious.

Back in December, David Little, executive director of the Rural Schools Association of New York (RSA), told Capital Tonight that the state aid formula is key for rural schools, because they have so little local economy left to support themselves.

“So, the state has to come up with a viable way to educate a third of its children,” he said.

With the executive budget due to be proposed on Tuesday, Capital Tonight spoke with superintendents from two rural districts about the challenges they are facing. 

Shawn Van Scoy is the superintendent of schools at Gananda Central School District, in Wayne County, east of Rochester.

“We are the activity center for our community,” he said. 

The district has about 950 students pre-K through 12th grade. The student body is a mix of suburban and rural children.

“We have about 30% free and reduced lunch, but that has been a change for us,” Van Scoy said regarding a data point used to calculate poverty. “About 12 years ago, we were at about 18% free and reduced lunch. So, we are a community that’s changing.”

Gananda’s annual budget is $26 million per year.

Andrew Cook is the superintendent of the Hartford Central School District in Washington County. 

“(We have) a strong and proud agricultural history,” Cook stated. “And as Shawn said, we are the hub of our community.”

Hartford is a high needs district with over 50% of students receiving free and reduced lunch. The district’s annual budget is $14 million.

Both superintendents agree that state aid is the life blood of their districts because property taxes don’t go far.

“With a 2% tax cap, a 1% increase on our levy only equates to $32,000 each year,” Cook explained. “It would not even cover the cost of one new teacher.”

For Gananda?

“(This year’s) 2% tax cap is actually a 2.39% cap for us this year, so it’s about $239,000 what we would get, which is not even half of one of the new [electric] buses that the state says we have to start buying,” Van Scoy said.

But these superintendents say that state aid is also capped for their districts.

Both schools are “Save Harmless” districts, which means both are receiving the maximum amount they can under the Foundation Aid formula. But it also means that, regardless of enrollment, the schools will receive the same level of funding they were allocated the previous year.

“The challenge for the Foundation Aid formula as it’s currently written is that it caps the growth for us,” Cook said.

Van Scoy agreed.

“With 0% increase from the state, we have health insurance, we have salary costs, we have additional needs for students that we’re going to struggle to meet…without additional revenue,” Van Scoy said. “We will need to look at what services we reduce.”

The Regents state aid request which was released in December includes $1 million to fund a study on how to update the Foundation Aid formula.

It also includes some immediate tweaks to the calculation that will make it fairer to schools.

But Van Scoy said an overhaul is needed fast.

“It’s 2023. The formula does not address the needs of our students. Whether they’re ELL students, or high-needs students or students coming back from the pandemic,” he said. “Whether it’s mental health needs. These are all things that are not accounted for appropriately in the Foundation Aid formula.”

Another issue rural districts are facing is the stagnation of BOCES Aid reimbursement for career and technical education teachers.

“Currently as it stands, school districts received BOCES aid on career and technical education teacher salaries, up to the first $30,000 of that teacher’s salary,” Cook said. “That cap was instituted in 1992 and has not been increased since.”

Another issue? Attracting teachers and other employees to fill the districts’ workforce needs. 

“We are losing staff. Currently, Gananda has two Spanish teachers who are not even from the United States,” Van Scoy said. “We’ve had to go outside the country to hire people and work through the visa process to get them in.”

Both superintendents are also worried about a state mandate requiring them to purchase electric buses starting in 2027. A district’s entire fleet of buses must be converted by 2035. 

The cost of electric buses is several times higher than the cost of the diesel buses schools purchase now. 

While Gov. Kathy Hochul has announced that $100 million is available for zero-emission school buses under the Environmental Bond Act that passed last year, Van Scoy says it will still be a struggle for his district.

“I have to start buying two electric buses a year. We are used to spending $125,000 per bus. We are now going to have to spend $800,000 a year [for two EV buses] and we are not going to get any additional state aid to take care that. We’re actually going to have to use some of our Foundation Aid possibly to pay for buses because our local tax levy is not going to be able to go up enough…”

Hartford typically issues a voter proposition when the district needs a new bus. But Cook is worried that taxpayers may not want to foot the bill for an electric bus. 

“Our community is very supportive of it. But there are a lot of concerns about the extraordinary cost of the zero-emission buses,” he said. “And there’s a fear that the public won’t support that.”

Because rural schools face so many financial challenges, some have asked if they are worth saving. Both superintendents were adamant that they are. 

“If you live in a small community like us, and you want to play lacrosse or you want to play soccer, you want to play basketball, you’re likely going to play. You want to be in the musical, there’s going to be a part for you,” Van Scoy said. “We offer great opportunities for kids to explore, learn what they love and what they want to be a part of. It’s a great place to try and find out where you belong in our society.”

And then there’s the personalized attention.

“We know every single student that comes to our buildings. As superintendent, I know every single kid that walks through our doors,” Cook said. “And we’re able to customize the students’ education to their needs.”

Gov. Hochul will deliver her budget address on Tuesday. Lawmakers and the governor have until April 1 to negotiate a final budget agreement. School budget votes take place in May.