Budget Testimony Before New York State Legislative Fiscal and Education Committees – February 6, 2019
Jennifer K. Pyle, Executive Director
Conference of Big 5 School Districts
Good afternoon. My name is Jennifer Pyle. I serve as Executive Director of the Conference of Big 5 School Districts. Thank you for providing me with the opportunity to testify before you today and for your steadfast commitment to serving the needs of urban education in New York State. I am joined by Dr. Edwin Quezada, Superintendent of Yonkers Public Schools; Mr. Jaime Alicea, Superintendent of the Syracuse City School District; Dr. Kriner Cash, Superintendent of the Buffalo Public Schools; Dr. Kenneth Hamilton, Superintendent of the Mount Vernon City School District; Mr. Everton Sewell, Chief Financial Officer of the Rochester City School District; and Mr. Steve Falchi, Administrative Director of Curriculum and Instruction K-12 of the Utica City School District. I have submitted written testimony and will not speak today in order to afford my panel time to address you.
The 2019-2020 Executive Budget provides a year-to-year school aid increase of $956 million. This includes a proposed $338 million increase in Foundation Aid of which $50 million is a set-aside increase for community schools.
We appreciate the Governor's ongoing commitment to increased funding for education. However, the proposal falls short of providing adequate resources for urban school districts faced with immense fiscal stress and struggling to meet the mounting needs of the pupils they serve.
The Conference of Big 5 School Districts and the other members of the Educational Conference Board (ECB) have advanced a proposal calling for a school aid increase of $2.2 billion including a $1.31 billion increase in Foundation Aid. The ECB recommendations include a three-year phase-in for full funding of Foundation Aid, updating the formula to more accurately account for student needs and restructuring the regional cost index.
Revision and full funding of the Foundation Aid formula is imperative for all of the Big 5 school districts as they are heavily reliant on State funds. Furthermore, the large city school districts have no ability to raise local revenue given their fiscal dependency and Mount Vernon and Utica are limited by the tax cap imposed upon independent school districts. There is no expectation that any of their respective struggling cities will have the capacity to increase the local share for education.
In addition, flexibility must be continued for the additional Community Schools set-aside under Foundation Aid in order to meet local needs.
Transparencv Reporting and Equitv Plans
The Conference's member school districts remain opposed to the mandated school-based expenditure reporting enacted last year. These requirements imposed a significant administrative burden on affected school districts and the utility of these reports remains questionable as there are a multitude of factors that must be considered in order to compare schools in a meaningful way. Furthermore, schoolbased expenditure reports are already mandated under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act for federal, State and local dollars and our school districts are subject to numerous other financial accountability measures including Contract for Excellence expenditure requirements, set-asides under Foundation Aid and State and federal program and fiscal audits. We urge you to repeal this new mandate.
In addition, we are deeply concerned about the Executive Budget's proposed Equity Plan requirements. All of the Big 5 school districts are overwhelmingly poor and this proposal would strip school districts of the authority to make building-level spending determinations. These decisions are best managed at the local level by school leaders who understand the unique needs of the pupils they serve.
The Executive Budget's proposal to cap growth in expense-based aids by merging 11 expense-based aid categories into a new Services Aid beginning in 2020-2021 is especially troubling. School districts could be forced to divert resources from the classroom in order to cover increases in areas such as transportation expenses. We call upon you to reject this proposal.
While we support school choice and affording parents the option to send their children to charter schools, we have serious concerns with regard to the current charter school funding system. The statutory increase in charter school tuition rates for 2019-2020 will place an additional undue burden on school districts. Supplemental charter school tuition payments must be increased to protect school districts from scheduled tuition increases and accelerated in order to enable school districts to receive current year reimbursement.
In addition, charter school expansion in saturated school districts should be limited and enhanced accountability measures must be applied to charter schools to ensure that enrollment accurately reflects district pupil demographics.
Furthermore, Transitional Aid must be expanded to capture conversion and district-sponsored charter schools and extended beyond three years for all schools.
English Language Learners
Our seven member school districts have experienced enrollment growth in recent years that can be attributed to pupils who are newly arrived to the United States, including large numbers of refugee students who speak little or no English and are in need of expanded services and interventions. In fact, almost 66% of all English Language Learners are educated in the Big 5. More funding is needed to support additional bilingual teachers, translators and support services. We are pleased with the Governor's inclusion of additional resources for refugee and immigrant student welcome grants. Career and Technical Education We support the Board of Regents commitment to multiple pathways and enhanced opportunities for all students through the expansion of Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs. Our school districts currently operate some of the most innovative and successful CTE programs in the State and we are continuing to grow these programs. We urge you to invest in Career and Technical Education programs by increasing the Special Services Aid per pupil formulabased funding cap and to align this funding with our district Career and Technical Education programs by expanding it to students beginning in grade 9.
Health and Mental Health Services
Many of our pupils have limited access to health and mental health services outside of the regular school day. Each of our school districts provides valuable health services to their students as required under Education Law. Unfortunately, funding for these services has been frozen for many years and Buffalo and Rochester will experience a reduction in School Health Services Aid under the Governor's plan. We urge you to restore this cut, provide additional targeted school health funding for all member districts and expand aid to New York City, Mount Vernon and Utica to assist them with increased demands for school health services.
We support the Governor's inclusion of additional dollars for Mental Health Support Grants and are hopeful that support for these important programs can be expanded in future years.
Additional resources must be provided to support vital professional development initiatives for teachers and principals. The Big 5 school districts currently receive no targeted State funding for these programs, which are essential to improving instructional quality and student outcomes.
We are pleased to see the continuation of funding for the Smart Start program intended to support professional development and expand high quality computer science and engineering education.
Over 50% of the State's special education students (ages 5-21) are educated in the Big 5 and the percentages of pupils with extraordinary needs in the Big 5 are staggering. We support the Governor's proposal to provide relief to school districts from unnecessary special education mandates through a new waiver system.
We are appreciative of the Governor's continued commitment to expand prekindergarten programs for the State's neediest school districts.
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Big 5 Testimony 2-6-19