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February 11, 2013

Hamilton 4th graders fired up over State Aid Inequities

The fourth graders at Hamilton Elementary School were outraged last week when they learned that their school district is getting a significantly lower percentage of state aid than many other districts across the state. 

Schenectady Superintendent Larry Spring has been relentlessly advocating for the Schenectady City School District’s fair share of New York State School Aid.  He has presented his argument to school district staff, administrators, community members, and elected officials.  Last week he had a new audience.  The fourth graders at Hamilton got a lesson on state aid, inequities, government and advocacy.  As they were presented the facts from the superintendent, they were not happy with the picture before them and are ready to take action. 

Spring started his introduction by providing the students with an overview of the district – how many schools, students and employees are included in the district.  He discussed his role as superintendent and noted that it’s his job to make sure Schenectady Schools and students get what they need.  “It takes money to run schools,” he pointed out.  Spring talked about the costs of running a school district and gave examples of expenses such as salaries, books, equipment, operating and heating costs and food.  He then explained to the students that school districts get the money through property taxes and state school aid to pay for the expenses.  

Spring explained how the amount of aid a school district should get is determined by formula.  Therefore, all districts do not get the same amount of aid.  “Schools that don’t get a lot for property tax should get more money in the form of aid,”  said Spring. "Some schools get 100% of what they should get.  Some get close to 100%.  Some get more.  Some get less. Some get a lot less.”  

Then he challenged the fourth graders with some math problems.  “How much more is 200% than 100%?” asked Spring.  “Twice as big,” said one of the students.  Spring explained to the students that there is a school district in New York State that receives 2000%, or 20 times, more than what they should be getting.    

He paused. “Schenectady gets 54% of what we should be getting,” said Spring.  He asked the students to think about what he just said.  “54%,” repeated Spring.   The students immediately reacted with “whaaaaat,?”  “you’re kidding,” “whoaaaaa!”   

Spring paused again and asked the students, “Does that seem right?” 

They responded with a loud and resounding, “no!” 

Spring explained further that some cities have a lot of money.  Those cities don’t need and aren’t supposed to get as much school aid.   “We have less money than the average district, so we should get more aid than the average district,” said Spring.  He asked, “if a district is receiving 2000% of aid, do you think that it’s a poor district or a wealthy district?”  All agreed, that only a poor district would receive that much aid.  Spring explained that such is not the case.  “This district receiving 2000% of aid is actually a wealthier district in New York State; 45 times wealthier than the average district in New York State,” he said.  The students eyes lit up and they wanted answers.   

“How is it that one of the poorest districts, like Schenectady, only gets half of their aid, but wealthier districts get 2000 times their aid?” asked Spring.  “We should ask that question.” 

Spring pointed to a chart that included about 35 local school districts and the amount of state aid and percentage of aid each receives.  The highest is at 1403% and the lowest is Schenectady at 54%.  “This is Schenectady right here,” said Spring, as he pointed to the bottom.

“Why? That’s crazy,” said one of the students. The students collectively grumbled.  Every student in the room was focused on what the superintendent had to say and the chart before him.  They were clearly not happy with what they were hearing.   

Spring told the students to have a 30-second discussion with the classmate next to them.  They were buzzing.  “This is ridiculous,” one student said loudly.  They were pointing at the charts and talking amongst themselves about how unfair the situation is.   

Spring then broke the money amounts down for the students.  “We are supposed to get $135 million per year from New York State,” he said.  “Instead we get $70 million.  They short us $62 million each year.”    

Pointing to a bar graph, Spring said, “Look at this.  Some are over 100%.  Some are close.  Most are in the range of  75-90%.  Then there are a few in the 60’s.  But look here, the biggest gap on the chart….see where it drops right here…. That’s Schenectady. That is us.”   The students remarked that “it’s not fair, it’s wrong,” and asked “how can that be?”

They know about fairness and equity.  

All of the fourth graders  learned about equity and fairness the day before Spring’s visit when some students were selected to enjoy a cupcake while others were not.  The students who were not initially invited to enjoy the treat said they felt “left out, angry, lonely, disappointed, frustrated, confused and jealous.”    

Spring said he understands those feelings as he pointed back to the charts.  “Every one of these districts is getting a higher percentage of their state aid than Schenectady,” he said. “It’s frustrating and confusing.”     

Spring then asked the students, “What can we do?” 

Some students suggested putting signs around to let everybody know about the inequity.   

Another said, “We should demand it and explain how we will use it.” 

“Talk to the President,” was one suggestion.  “Ask why. Write letters to the Governor and the President.”  

Spring explained that he has an appointment with the Governor's staff to ask just that.  Spring also suggested writing to senators and Members of Congress. 

“The Governor makes a budget proposal and determines how much aid school districts get,” said Spring.   He explained that Governor Cuomo’s proposal did give Schenectady a 4% increase, “but that doesn’t even get us to the bottom district on the chart.”  “We need to make sure that our senators and assemblymen know that the Governor was way off,” he said.  “We need them to know that this is not okay.” 

“How many of you think that this is unfair and that it needs to change,” he asked.  All of the students raised their hands and nodded their heads in agreement.  

Spring told them to think again about how they felt when some students got cupcakes and some didn’t.  “It was unfair, right?”  He continued, “That’s just what this is.” 

Spring suggested that the students write to the senators and assemblymen and ask them to fight for money for the school districts that they each represent.  “We have to ask them to help us,” he added.

“Can you believe this,” asked one student to another.  “Wow, its crazy,” he answered.  

Michelle VanDerlinden, principal of Hamilton said the students were definitely fired up and would be writing letters to elected officials the next day.

Learn more about State Aid Inequities and how you can advocate for Schenectady's Fair Share.

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