With the state committed to fully funding Foundation Aid incrementally over the next three years, the Port Chester School District faces an uncharacteristically optimistic financial future. It’s projected the district will see $7 million more in Foundation Aid dollars in the 2021-22 school year.
Richard Abel|Westmore News
With the state committed to fully funding Foundation Aid incrementally over the next three years, the Port Chester School District faces an uncharacteristically optimistic financial future. It’s projected the district will see $7 million more in Foundation Aid dollars in the 2021-22 school year. Richard Abel|Westmore News

Superintendent Dr. Edward Kliszus described Wednesday, Apr. 7, as a hustle for the Port Chester School District administrators—waking up early to prepare for an influx of phone calls and meetings to discuss endeavors moving forward.

And it was all for good reason—arguably the best reason.

The day before, on Apr. 6, the powers that be in Albany formally committed to funding Foundation Aid. And not just a partial funding, as school districts have grown accustomed to over the last decade. The plan is to finance it fully over the next three years.

The ruling came out of negotiations over the state 2021-22 budget, where the legislature pushed for a phase-in plan, which the governor has historically been resistant toward.

“This is an incredible turning point for the district; we’ve been fighting for this for 10 years,” Kliszus said, and later continued: “This is our chance to get caught up a bit. Kids only have one chance at school; this is our chance to get this right. We already have seniors doing these remarkable things. With this, they can do even better.”

Foundation Aid was established in 2007, after a 1993 lawsuit ultimately concluded New York State was failing to provide all students with a “sound basic education” due to insufficient funds allocated towards public schools.

As school districts are primarily funded through the property tax levy, Foundation Aid was designed to balance the educational disparity between wealthy and underprivileged communities by distributing supplemental funds based on need. Using a formula that factors in enrollment, regional costs, and needs such as special education, English Language Learners and poverty rates, the aid was meant to give high-needs districts a boost that puts them in competitive par.

With a majority immigrant, low-income population that has brought skyrocketing enrollment figures to the district, Port Chester epitomizes high needs. Theoretically, Foundation Aid was implemented specifically to help public schools like those seen in the community.

However, Foundation Aid hasn’t been fully funded for over a decade.

With the 2008 Great Recession came a Foundation Aid freeze—meaning for several years the amount distributed to districts stayed the same despite qualifying variables changing. Though it’s since been unfrozen, districts in need still haven’t received 100 percent of their funding as dictated by the formula.

The Port Chester School District has traditionally seen less than 50 percent of its aid.

If the district received full Foundation Aid funding for the 2021-22 school year, it would be a $47.9 million figure. Using last year’s rates, the superintendent’s initial budget presentation projected 49 percent fulfillment—$21.6 million.

As of Tuesday, that conservative estimate is longer the case.

The Foundation Aid deal passed in the New York State budget not only promises a 100 percent Foundation Aid phase-in over the next three years but ensures in the next school year all school districts can plan for at least 60 percent of their dues.

According to the official state aid runs released Tuesday afternoon, the Port Chester School District is slated to receive $28.3 million in Foundation Aid, a $6.7 million spike compared to last year. With additional aid that was also approved by the state, the district is seeing a $9.7 million budget-to-budget state aid increase.

“Both the senate and the assembly stuck to their guns that they’re going to get this full funding over a three-year period. We had it in the budget before, but this year it wasn’t blocked,” reflected State Senator Shelley Mayer. “It was so important to our members that we get everyone up to 60 percent.”

“The big thing about Foundation Aid is, it’s particularly a Port Chester story,” illuminated Assemblyman Steve Otis, who has been an active advocate for Port Chester Schools funding for years. “The strategy of making this happen, making this a point in state budget discussions, really originated from these discussions we were having with Port Chester. It’s going to mean a lot for the schools and Port Chester taxpayers. And it’ll help many other districts in the process—77 others are benefitting from this. But it is a uniquely Port Chester story; it all started with Port Chester.”

The fight for Foundation Aid, Otis said, was largely instigated by former longtime Assistant Superintendent for Business Maura McAward, who while dedicating 21 years to the district also pushed for tangible changes for the benefit of all underprivileged schools.

“Port Chester was getting 37 percent of its Foundation Aid. One of the lowest in the state,” Otis recalled. “We came up with this strategy to, instead of giving everyone full funding, to try prioritizing higher increases to districts in need that are getting these low percentages. It’s the strategy that sort of evolved into this proposal.”

When the state committed this week, Otis and McAward shared a celebratory phone call.

Newfound funds as substantial as Foundation Aid open doors to a boundless world for Port Chester students. With a well-established history of financial turmoil, the district has a track-record of making cuts year after year due to unswerving budget gaps.

For the first time in a long time, the district is now faced with good, difficult decisions: what to do with the money?

“What’s really important is, I want people to be focused on restoring what our kids should have. There’s these things that all these other school districts take for granted that we don’t have,” Kliszus said. “Foundation Aid, what’s special about that is it’s money that comes back every year. We won’t lose it. So it’s important to use it for programs and positions.”

Kliszus rattled off a list he knows by heart by now—citing the dozens of programs, teachers and administrators that no longer exist in the Port Chester Schools. On Wednesday, he and other administrators spent the morning prioritizing, collaborating on a list to present to the school board advising how they feel the money should be spent.

District officials want to bring back the 10 RTI (Response to Intervention) teaching positions that were eliminated from the budget in 2012. In addition, Kliszus said they’re in desperate need of more bilingual educators, as the number of ELL students continues to grow. A director of STEM at the high school is also a high priority—someone who can solely focus on and enhance innovative education.

Ideally, the district will be able to use Foundation Aid funds to restore an elementary arts program, librarian positions and specialized supervisors to help improve teachers’ lessons. Students have been asking for more clubs and sports, such as lacrosse and field hockey, Kliszus added—programs he’d like to see established.

Expanding the IB program to the first two high school grades, instating an orchestra and inaugurating a Talented and Gifted program are all on the table, he vocally beamed.

“All of these things will make our kids more competitive,” Kliszus said. “And they’re all things our kids should have.”

Foundation Aid funds, he recommends, should be used for projects with longevity. However, that’s not to say the district won’t be able to invest in critical one-time expenditures that are equally needed. Next year is slated to be historically fruitful.

Kliszus said the district is predicting a large payout from the American Rescue Plan Act, with $15-20 million currently projected. Stipulations are still unclear—they believe it will be allocated over the course of a few years and at least $5 million will need to go toward COVID-19 relief programs—but the monies can ultimately be used for one-time expenses.

This is Kliszus’ last year in the district. As of July 1, he will officially be retired.

But in a way, it’s perfect timing. He can leave knowing his advocacy over the last 10 years did not fall on deaf ears. The Port Chester School District is moving on into an optimistic future.