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Public school finance director pushes for state aid reform


CANTON — North country communities should not accept excuses from their state representatives on reforming the school aid formula that is financially driving them into the ground while benefitting wealthier districts, Richard G. “Rick” Timbs, executive director of the Statewide School Finance Consortium, said at a presentation Tuesday.

Legislators who say they’ll study the complaints of their constituents or throw up their hands at state government’s inability to change should expect return visits.

“I say, ‘I’ll be back next week and see how you’re doing,’” Mr. Timbs said to an audience of about 50 school board members, teachers, parents and students at St. Lawrence-Lewis Board of Cooperative Educational Services. “This doesn’t make them happy, but I don’t care. Be relentless. Never give up.”

BOCES employee and parent Susan M. Huntley, Canton, asked Mr. Timbs how to persuade the elected representatives of wealthier districts to adopt a state aid formula that is more fair to districts that have fewer financial resources.

The answer lies in building alliances of districts in similar circumstances, Mr. Timbs said.

Districts in New York City, not those in surrounding wealthy counties such as Westchester, are of average wealth and could benefit from a formula change. Most of the districts in St. Lawrence-Lewis BOCES are below average wealth.

“We have to explain we have an ally in New York City,” he said.

Canton Central School Board President Barbara B. Beekman wanted to know whether the Assembly, Senate or Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is most important to reach.

“Who’s really got their finger on the button?” she said.

Mr. Timbs said they all count and are the only ones who can change aid formulas and pension policy.

“You’ve got to get them all,” he said. “There’s only one group that can change this trajectory, the state Legislature and the governor. If they can’t get the job done, get somebody else.”

Regardless of political party, legislators have to be helped when it comes to formulating a fair state aid formula, Mr. Timbs said.

“I think Addie Russell wants to do a good job, but she has to be guided along,” he said. “You have to make them sterling legislators.”

Mrs. Russell is a Democratic member of the Assembly from Theresa. Mr. Timbs did not mention other legislators who represent the north country.

To achieve a concerted effort, Mr. Timbs recommended networking and having personal discussions on school budget policies with sports boosters, service clubs, veterans groups and parent-teacher organizations.

“In a school district, everybody’s important. Everyone should understand,” he said. “The closer it gets to you personally, the more it has meaning. You can’t rely on a single weapon.”

Mr. Timbs’s organization is a group of schools that banded together to investigate state aid and its distribution.

“What we found out is the cards are stacked against us,” he said. “There doesn’t seem to be a lot of political will to change that. I think the more we know the better we are.”

Many school districts in recent years have laid off teachers and staff, cut programs and dug into their reserves while trying to keep within a state-imposed tax cap as they pay for high costs of pensions and other benefits.

“Sooner or later, you’re going to run out of people and money. You are on a downhill slope,” Mr. Timbs said. “The best of you is average wealth. The rest of you are poor as dirt compared to the rest of the state.”

Mr. Timbs advised getting rid of the gap elimination adjustment — which cut state aid — and instituting a formula that accounts for poverty and fiscal capacity. Money for nonessential programs should be eliminated and funds should not be diverted for political purpose, he said.

He recommended a commission to propose legislation for an equitable aid formula, additional money for district mergers, regional high schools, kindergarten and prekindergarten, and assistance with various cost drivers, such as access to a statewide health insurance plan.

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