Budget Testimony Before New York State Legislative Fiscal and Education Committees – February 8, 2023
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, representing the Buffalo, New York City, Rochester, Syracuse, Yonkers, Albany, Mount Vernon and Utica City School Districts. Thank you for providing us with the opportunity to testify before you today and for your steadfast commitment to serving the needs of urban education in New York State.
We are grateful for your extraordinary efforts resulting in the Foundation Aid phase-in and allocation of the federal resources necessary to enable school districts to meet pressing COVID-related needs. We are pleased that the Executive Budget maintains the promised Foundation Aid phase-in and full funding for expense based aids.
Our school districts had monumental needs before the pandemic hit that were not being met and these have only been exacerbated. It is imperative that the State commit to a revised Foundation Aid formula that is transparent, predictable and distributes funding in an equitable manner reflective of unique student needs. School Districts are rapidly approaching the federal funding cliff and additional resources will be critical to addressing the needs of our State’s most vulnerable schools. We cannot afford to shortchange our children who deserve a quality education and the supports necessary to guarantee them a chance to succeed.
In addition, the State must recognize that resource allocation decisions are best managed by experienced educators at the local level. We urge you to reject the proposed creation of a High Impact Tutoring set-aside and afford school districts the ability to target funding where it is most needed.
Lastly, I would be remiss if I did not recognize Chancellor Young, Commissioner Rosa, the Board of Regents and State Education Department staff for their unwavering commitment to supporting the Big 5 school districts as we navigated unprecedented challenges over the past several years. Their steadfast support was accomplished despite the fact that the Department was severly understaffed. We urge you to ensure that they are provided with the funding necessary to enable them to continue to provide vital support to our schools.
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. Charter school expansion in saturated school districts must be limited and the New York State Board of Regents designated as the sole authorizing authority. The State must also prohibit charter schools from expanding to serve additional grade levels when this would alter the school’s current grade configuration.
In addition, Supplemental Charter School Tuition payments must be reimbursed in the year they are paid. School districts should not be burdened with cash flow struggles and short-term borrowing expenses caused by delayed reimbursement.
Furthermore, an independent entity must be appointed to oversee the dissolution of charter schools to ensure public funds are protected and returned to school districts as required under current statute and charter school reserves must be limited. It is unconscionable to continue to advance public funds to charter schools with reserves, in some cases, in excess of 50-150 percent of their total annual operating budget.
Charter schools must also be required to provide school districts with accurate enrollment and attendance information in a timely fashion and a statutory process established whereby school districts may recoup excess charter school payments from prior years.
Lastly, enhanced accountability measures must be applied to charter schools to ensure that enrollment accurately reflects district pupil demographics.
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 formula-based funding cap and to align this funding with our Career and Technican Education programs by expanding it to students beginning in grade 9. In addition, more resources should be provided to enable Mount Vernon and Utica to expand in-district CTE programs.
The Big 5 school districts appreciate the Governor’s ongoing commitment to funding prekindergarten programs in New York State. Our school districts operate some of the State’s longest running and most successful prekindergarten programs. However, funding levels in many cases have not been adjusted to reflect the actual costs of these vital programs. The State must commit to fully funding prekindergarten programs for existing programs in high need urban school districts.
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 and provide additional targeted school health funding for all member districts to assist them with increased demands for school health services.
English Language Learners
Several of our eight member school districts have experienced increased enrollment of 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. In fact, almost 68% of all English Language Learners are educated in the Big 5. More funding is needed to support additional bilingual teachers, translators and support services.
The current Transportation Aid mileage limitations are not aligned with the conditions in our State’s urban centers. While the State acted to address this issue through modifications to school safety zones outside of the Big 5, there was no action taken to afford students in the large cities the same protections. It is imperative that the State address this issue by reimbursing school districts in the Big 5 for school transportation below the current 1.5 mile limit in instances where the State Education Department deems there is a safety issue.
Instructional Materials and the Digital Divide
Funding for instructional materials including textbooks, software, hardware and library materials has been frozen for decades. The State must take action to increase aid to ensure school districts have the capacity to provide students with the materials they need and deserve. In addition, school districts must be provided with sustained support to ensure that all students and staff have access to critical technology and connectivity.
The State Funding Transparency mandate should be eliminated. This burdensome process is duplicative given the federal ESSA reporting requirements. Furthermore, collecting budgeted versus actual expenses, as is done with ESSA reporting, provides no value.
Professional Development and Staffing
Additional resources must be provided to support vital professional development initiatives and recruitment and retention efforts for teachers and principals. The Big 5 school districts currently receive no targeted State funding for professional development programs, which are essential to improving instructional quality and student outcomes.
In addition, we urge you to extend the retiree earning waiver. This will provide school districts with another avenue by which to pursue filling vacancies in many shortage areas. We continue to work closely with the State Education Department, along with other stakeholders, to address the teacher shortage crisis.
Thank you, again, for affording me this opportunity to comment on the Executive Budget proposal. I look forward to working with you in the coming weeks and remain available to answer any questions or provide any information that may be of assistance to you.
Download file here:
2023 State Budget Testimony