Big money

Board of Regents asks state lawmakers for additional $2.1 billion in school funds

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Regent James Tallon after a recent Board of Regents meeting.

In the run up to the legislative session, the state’s education policymaking body staked out an “aggressive” position to increase state education funding over the next three years, including a $2.1 billion increase next year over last year’s $24.8 billion budget.

Central to the board’s proposal is a three-year phase-in of “foundation aid,” a formula created over a decade ago and derailed by the recession that aims to provide sufficient funding to districts with high-needs students. In New York City, 30 percent of the state’s allocation to the city comes from foundation aid, according to the city’s Independent Budget Office.

The Board of Regents is poised to call for a full phase-in of $4.3 billion in total aid by the 2019-20 school year, including $1.47 billion to be provided next year.

“We thought it appropriate for the Regents to remind everybody that foundation aid is something the Regents made a commitment to a long, long time ago,” said Regent James Tallon,who chairs the Regents state aid subcommittee. “And therefore, in doing the three-year phase-in, I think we’re being aggressive.”

The state’s foundation aid formula was created in response to a lawsuit claiming the state does not provide enough funding to give each child a sound basic education. Funding increases were put on hold during the recession, while many districts across the state absorbed education budget cuts. The state restored some recession-era cuts last year, leaving advocates hopeful the state legislature will refocus its commitment on restoring foundation aid this year.

Still, extra education funding is far from a done deal. The Board of Regents has no formal power over the legislature, so their proposal is only a suggestion for lawmakers. Making matters more complicated, the state recalculated the amount districts are owed in foundation aid after November and increased the total owed to districts by $500 million, mainly because of increased student enrollment in high-needs districts.

“We are by no means out of the woods,” Tallon said. He also acknowledged that budget constraints could make a full restoration of aid an uphill battle. “We’re not unmindful of the fact that the state is in one of these cycles that going to place a lot of constraints on revenue,” Tallon said.

The increase in foundation aid represents a large portion of the Regents proposal, but there are a number of other initiatives that bring the board’s total suggested increase to $2.1 billion. The other budgetary asks include $100 million to support English Language Learners and $60 million to build career and technical education programs. The total ask is a bit less than the $2.4 billion increase Regents proposed last year, but far more than the $1.5 billion in additional funds that ended up in the final budget.

State officials also suggesting changes to how the aid formula calculates poverty. Like most states across the country, New York has long used free and reduced-priced lunch to calculate student need. But that metric has become increasingly flawed as more schools offer universal free lunch, leading fewer families to fill out the free lunch form.

Instead, the Regents have suggested switching to “direct certification,” which counts students whose families are engaged in other programs like Medicaid or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). State officials said they expect the proposal — which suggests using a blend of free and reduced-priced lunch and direct certification while the state makes the transition — to have little effect on the total funding directed towards New York City.

On Monday, the Regents gave preliminary approval to the proposal. They are expected to cast a final vote on the state aid proposal on Tuesday.

head to head

Protesters face off with member of New York City’s Absent Teacher Reserve outside the mayor’s gym

PHOTO: Cassi Feldman
Karen Curley, left, talks with Andrea Jackson of StudentsFirstNY

Karen Curley ran into something surprising as she headed into her Park Slope gym on Wednesday: protesters pushing back against the city’s strategy to give her a job.

Curley, 61, a Department of Education social worker who used to work in District 17, has been rotating through different positions for at least two years. She is a member of the Absent Teacher Reserve, the pool of teachers without permanent assignments that is once again at the center of debate over how the city should manage teachers and spend money.

The protesters had gathered outside the Prospect Park YMCA to confront its most famous member, Mayor Bill de Blasio, about the city’s plans to place roughly 400 teachers from the ATR into school vacancies come October. They say the city is going back on an earlier vow not to force the teachers into schools.

“These are unwanted teachers. There’s a reason why they’re just sitting there,” said Nicole Thomas, a Brooklyn parent and volunteer with StudentsFirstNY, an advocacy group that organized the protest and often opposes the mayor. “We don’t want these teachers in our schools.”

In fact, the ATR pool includes both teachers whose positions were eliminated because of budget cuts or enrollment changes, and also teachers who have disciplinary records. The city has not disclosed how many teachers in the pool fall into each camp, or which ones will be assigned to positions this fall.

Curley said she was heartbroken when she realized the protest was directed against the Absent Teacher Reserve. “We don’t want to be absent,” she said. “We’re educators.”

She said cost was likely an impediment to their hiring. “The truth is, at this point, I have 20 years in [the school system], which isn’t a lot for someone my age,” she said. But after 20 years, “we’re not likely to be hired elsewhere because we’re high enough on the pay scale that new people can be hired for a lot less money.”

Earlier Wednesday, Chalkbeat cited new figures from the Independent Budget Office placing the cost of the Absent Teacher Reserve at $151.6 million last school year, an average of roughly $116,000 per teacher in salary and benefits. Some principals have balked at the idea of having staffers forced on them in October — and vowed to avoid having vacancies.

Shortly after 10 a.m., the mayor emerged from the gym and hurried into a waiting car without addressing the protesters, who chanted, “Hey hey, ho ho, forced placement has got to go.”

Thomas was disappointed he didn’t stop. “He didn’t even acknowledge us,” she said. “And we voted for him.”

New Partner

Boys & Girls Clubs coming to two Memphis schools after all

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Principal Tisha Durrah stands at the entrance of Craigmont High, a Memphis school that soon will host one of the city's first school-based, after-school clubs operated by the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Memphis.

Principal Tisha Durrah says her faculty can keep students focused and safe during school hours at Craigmont High School. It’s the time after the final bell rings that she’s concerned about.

“They’re just walking the neighborhood basically,” Durrah says of daily after-school loitering around the Raleigh campus, prompting her to send three robocalls to parents last year. “It puts our students at risk when they don’t have something to do after school.”

Those options will expand this fall.

Craigmont is one of two Memphis schools that will welcome after-school programs run by the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Memphis following this week’s change of heart by Shelby County’s Board of Commissioners.

Commissioners voted 9-4 to foot the bill for operational costs to open clubs at Craigmont and Dunbar Elementary. The decision was a reversal from last week when the board voted down Shelby County Schools’ request for an extra $1.6 million to open three school-based clubs, including one at Riverview School. Wednesday’s approval was for a one-time grant of $905,000.

Commissioners have agreed all along that putting after-school clubs in Memphis schools is a good idea — to provide more enriching activities for neighborhood children in need. But some argued last week that the district should tap existing money in its savings account instead of asking the county for extra funding. Later, the district’s lawyers said the school system can only use that money legally to pay for direct educational services, not to help fund a nonprofit’s operations.

Heidi Shafer is one of two commissioners to reverse their votes in favor of the investment. She said she wanted to move ahead with a final county budget, but remains concerned about the clubs’ sustainability and the precedent being set.

PHOTO: Boys & Girls Club
The Boys & Girls Club provides after-school programs for children and teens.

“If we give (money) to something that’s para-education, we have less to give to education,” she said. “There’s only a limited amount of dollars to go around.”

The funding will help bring to Memphis the first-ever school-based Boys & Girls clubs opened through Shelby County Schools, the largest district in Tennessee, said Keith Blanchard, the organization’s Memphis CEO.

While the nonprofit has had a local presence since 1962 and is up to seven sites in Memphis, it’s had no local government funding heretofore, which is unusual across its network. Nationally, about 1,600 of the organization’s 4,300 clubs are based in schools.

Blanchard plans to get Dunbar’s club up and running by the beginning of October in the city’s Orange Mound community. Craigmont’s should open by November.

“We hope to maybe do another school soon. … A lot will depend on how this school year goes,” he said. “I certainly hope the county sees the value in this and continues to fund in a significant way.”

At Craigmont, the club will mean after-school tutoring and job training in computer science and interviewing skills. Durrah says the activities will provide extra resources as the district seeks to better equip students for life after high school.

“It looks toward the long term,” Durrah said of the program. “This really fits in with the district’s college- and career-ready goals.”