You Get What You Pay For

Kevin Casey, SAANYS Executive Director
January 2023 News & Notes

The New York State Council of School Superintendents recently conducted their annual survey of superintendents in the state. The survey results were reviewed and reported by “On Board,” a publication of the New York State School Boards Association, in its January 9, 2023 edition.

The overall findings indicated a high degree of optimism among the school superintendents in New York. A strong majority felt that districts would be in a position in 2023 to improve services to students on many fronts, including the delivery of mental health services, academic help, and enrichment programs, among many other topics. The source of the optimism is linked to state Foundation Aid increases and federal COVID relief assistance. This makes me think of the many years in the past when lobbying the legislature for increased education funding, and being told that education already consumes a disproportionate percentage of the state budget, not even considering any increases that we were proposing. Our typical response was to point out the ever-increasing number of unfunded mandates placed upon school districts. To some extent those dynamics continue today.

It is true that fully funding the Foundation Aid that was originally passed in 2007 is a significant step for which educators should be grateful. Additionally, the COVID relief monies from the federal government successfully avoided the pandemic creating an educational armageddon. Educators know better than most the significant challenges that were imposed by the pandemic. Their ability to respond to those challenges would have been greatly restricted absent the Federal COVID Relief Aid. It is also true that the responsibilities of the educators and school districts have expanded in the recent past, and seemingly will continue to do so in the future. This gives rise to the concern of what occurs when the Federal COVID Relief Aid is exhausted.

In the survey of superintendents, 90% of the respondents said it was completely or mostly true that schools are taking on a larger role in providing support for families in their communities. When lobbying for state aid to schools, I can imagine legislators, having now fully funded Foundation Aid, and being fully aware of the COVID-19 relief money from the federal government, feeling that schools currently get enough taxpayer money. I understand that reaction, but I’m not convinced it survives a close scrutiny of the services that schools now provide. Commonplace are preschool and after-school services, expanded AIS, meals, tablets or other hardware, and mental health services. Some districts provide translation services and counseling to families as well as the students they serve.

It seems to me that education in New York State has been evolving toward a community school model without a coherent overarching plan to do so. Services are not specified and funding sources not fully identified. Services are provided, on a district-by-district level in a piecemeal way. If schools are in fact expected to provide a variety of services arguably beyond educational services, then they should have clear direction and be funded accordingly. I believe if done intentionally, pursuant to a considered design plan, those services could be comprehensively rendered in an efficient and logical manner. However, it won’t be cheap, and would admittedly impact the local control that many seek to preserve. The value of schools to the public cannot accurately be measured in dollars, but rather with the consideration of the amount and nature of the services rendered.

The optimism reflected in the survey referenced above could be short-lived if the expectation is that those services will continue to be rendered in the future, even after the COVID related funding is discontinued. The reality is that it comes down to money.