First published: Sunday, April 8, 2007 Albany taxpayers, brace yourselves.
Conventional wisdom has it that the recently completed state budget was flush with money for public education, and that is mostly true. Historic increases in aid were given across the board, especially to high-needs school districts, and credit for that belongs to Gov. Eliot Spitzer.
In addition, Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno was able to arm-twist the governor out of even more for the traditionally high-taxed districts on Long Island and elsewhere. So everybody made out.
Well, almost almost everybody.
The Albany school district did not.
Remember, during his State of the State address, the governor singled out the Albany and Buffalo school districts as deserving a bunch more aid to compensate for an excessive number of taxpayer-killing charter schools imposed on them. The governor, for reasons that continue to baffle and irritate upstaters, also insisted on raising the cap on the number of these abominations. He got his wish, 100 more.
But true to the promise, there was $2.5 million in transition aid to compensate. For what? For an unbelievable eight charter schools approved for Albany next year, with 19 percent of the district's students attending. Drawing off $10,176 per pupil. By the year 2010, nine charters are scheduled to be up and running in the city, potentially drawing off 35 percent of the student population. Talk about a selective alternate-choice experiment gone berserk.
What Albany is doing even now, and struggling to do so, is support two separate school districts. One set of taxpayers, two school districts.
Superintendent Eva Joseph estimates that in the next school year, the district would need $14.7 million in transition aid alone to stay even, not $2.5 million. And she insists those are not casual figures thrown out to shock. They are careful calculations on the conservative side by the district's business department, adding up the fixed expenses for the district on a per pupil basis, whether they attend charters or regular public schools.
That is some disparity. Guess who has to make up the difference?
Joseph finds herself between several rocks, and several hard places. On the one hand, she notes the district got $7.1 million in extra school aid beyond the transition aid, and she is grateful for that. But some of the extra aid is earmarked for pre-k programs that haven't started yet, and the total is still far short of what the district needs.
Thee are only so many notches in the belt to tighten. In the last two years, the district has eliminated 105 positions. Every time it loses 25 pupils, it drops a teacher; at every 50, an additional support staff; at every 500, an administrator.
Critics suggest selling one or more of the elementary schools. Joseph says to do so is premature. For one, the elementaries are all and the taxpayers are paying off the bonds over 30 years. Selling them gains nothing. For another, keeping neighborhood schools is important to the city's social fabric. And more importantly, if New Covenant charter school fails at some point, which has been rumored for years, the school district would be required to absorb 750 to 900 youngsters overnight. The district can mothball a few schools, maybe, but they have to be ready.
But the worst dilemma of all financially is that the district is caught in a spiraling trap. It has to be competitive and improve, and it can't do that by cutting all the time. Besides, to receive even the $2.5 million, the district had to sign up for the governor's Contract for Excellence, and must meet certain benchmark standards -- or be penalized and lose more aid. Catch 22.
What the superintendent says the district desperately needs -- deserves -- is a tailor-made charter school compensation package from the state Legislature that recognizes the realities of Albany's nearly unique situation. Buffalo deserves one too, she says.
As proof she points this out: The new onerous benchmark for any school district in terms of possibly putting a brake on charter schools is when enrollment reaches 5 percent of the district's student population. Next year, Albany taxpayers will be funding four times that.
At the moment, the district is cranking up the numbers for the upcoming school budget vote. It will not be pretty. As I said, brace yourselves.