New Sources for Funding Education, Regional Development

Doug Smith Is Pictured, Second From the Right

A month ago, I had the opportunity to join with hundreds of Middle Country School District residents at a planning meeting to discuss fiscal challenges facing the district.

Confronted with a $10.3 Million budget deficit in the coming year, all options are on the table. As a representative from Assemblyman Al Graf’s office, I spoke candidly with despaired members of the Board of Education and community, giving them an “Albany Update.”

This included a repeal of the MTA Payroll Tax for school districts (which received loud applause) and Assemblyman Graf’s flagship issue—which made its way into the Governor’s Budget—Energy Reform that fundamentally transforms Long Island’s economy. What seemed to resonate with residents is the new importance of Grants and seeking outside funding to supplement education costs.

Generally, school districts have two streams of income: New York state aid (controlled by the state budget) and property tax revenue. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s signature accomplishment during the 2011 legislative session was passage of the nation’s toughest property tax cap. To combat ever-rising property taxes, this new law states that no local government entity may increase its property tax levy by 2% or the rate of inflation (whichever is lower). In the case of a school district, this can be overridden if 60% of the community votes to allow the district to increase taxes above that rate. Given the electoral challenge, most districts will likely remain around the two percent mark.

With the two main sources of revenue relatively fixed, this now forces our schools to modify their business model and look toward outside funding through grants. This offers interesting opportunities to explore fresh new ideas in the areas of education and regional development. Job seekers with grant writing experience will now become an asset more than ever before.

Last fall, as a student teacher at Sachem North High School, I worked with Library Media Specialist, Jacquelyn Wrightson, to successfully obtain a $10,000.00 grant for the district from Optimum Lightpath. Through Cablevision’s Technology in the Classroom Grant we proposed building a state of the art, multipurpose, distance learning video conferencing classroom. Equipped with a Smart Board and iPads for student interactivity, we are calling this our “Portal to Discovery” (Credit to Ken White, Director of Brookhaven National Laboratory’s Office of Educational Programs for coining the phrase and inspiring the name).

The mission of Sachem’s Portal will be to connect students with local colleges and two of the nation’s top research centers: Brookhaven National Lab and Stony Brook University to promote STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) Careers. This grant took about 10 hours of collaboration and offers great new opportunities for our students at no cost to taxpayers. Moral of the story: there is funding out there, you just need to reach out and grab it.

As Legislative Aide to Assemblyman Al Graf, I can say that he is probably the strongest proponent of grants in the NY State Legislature. Over the last several months, he has spoken to numerous education representatives—teachers, parents, librarians, school board members, superintendents, professors, college presidents—they all seem to support his common sense solutions in the area of grants:

1.   Establish a Resource that lists all grants in the State. Assemblyman Graf has sponsored bill A.7111 which creates an online database that will list all available grants (federal, state, private, foundation, etc.) by category, which will also include pertinent contact information, and due dates. This website will be maintained by the New York State Office of Science, Technology, and Research.

2.   Grant Writing Clinics in Our Colleges & Universities. Incorporating Grant Writing into the college curriculum will arm our students with an additional necessary and marketable skill for their resume. Establishing a Grant Writing Clinic on college campuses will allow students to actively write grant applications for the college and community—a win-win for both the student, college, and any partner organization.

3.   Regional Grant Writing Consortiums. Many school districts in the 5th Assembly District comment that they are overlooked for grants because they “do not meet the demographics.” However if grant consortiums were grouped by town (ie. Islip Schools, and Brookhaven Schools) the entire demographic shifts. Additionally, with the inclusion of more schools, a foundation is more likely to award money which will help a greater amount of students. Assemblyman Graf has been in talks with BOCES as they have the correct non-profit status which can facilitate such collaboration.

Long Island has the best schools in New York State. In order to succeed as a region, we need to see the continued excellence of our schools while creating an environment where young people can live out the American Dream and our seniors can stay in the homes where they raised their families. This challenging balance will require a paradigm shift in how we are funding our schools, where innovation converts retreat into advance.

Article as seen in the Sachem Patch.