7 On Your Side Investigates: Under funding, overcrowding forces kids to attend classes in closet

OSSINING, Westchester County (WABC) -- At an elementary school in Westchester County's Ossining School District, students learning English practiced reading in a cramped classroom constructed on the school's stage using temporary walls.

Other students in need of speech therapy worked with another teacher in a converted custodial closet.

Another teacher utilized classroom space in the cafeteria separated by only a curtain, requiring students to concentrate despite the noise from other grades with different lunch hours.

The circumstances highlight the struggles of five districts known as the 'Harmed Suburban Five.'

At another school in the bunch, on the other side of the Long Island Sound, in the Westbury School District; middle school students attended classes in breezeways and in basement classrooms with ladders for fire escapes.

Overcrowding has forced the school to turn some stairwells into "up only" stairwells and designate other stairwells for students heading downstairs complicating the rush between periods.

"We have student spaces that are not even conducive to for learning," said Westbury Superintendent Eudes Budhai.

"What we are trying to avoid is a crisis," added Ossining Superintendent Raymond Sanchez. "We're at it right now."

In addition to the Westbury and Ossining School Districts, the 'Harmed Suburban Five' includes the Port Chester, Riverhead and Glen Cove School Districts.

All of these school districts report seeing rising enrollment, increasing minority populations, and escalating poverty rates, but continue to receive a fraction of the state funding they are entitled to under state law.

All of the school districts are also comprised of largely working and middle-class families who live in communities neighboring some of New York's wealthiest towns, magnifying the differences between the haves and have nots.

"It starts to wear on the children," said Ren Zelaya, a dad in Westbury who says his eldest son was kept out of honors classes in high school because the district didn't have room for him.

The trouble is how New York funds education.

It uses a formula known as "foundation aid" intended to send more money to the neediest districts.

That formula was created in 2007 following a lawsuit accusing the state of violating students' constitutional rights to a sound basic education, but the state has only loosely followed that formula in an effort to save money.

By not following the formula as it was written, education experts complain the state has created an environment where certain schools fall through the cracks while other schools receive more than their fair share.

Administrators at the 'Harmed Suburban Five' complain that being a financially struggling district, with rising, largely minority populations, in otherwise wealthy counties has caused them to end up with much less than they need.

'7 On Your Side Investigates' examined yearly school funding data provided by the Alliance for Quality Education.

It showed that repeatedly since the formula was created, the 'Harmed Suburban Five' had been short-changed by the state.

As of a November 2018 state report, Ossining had received 41% of the funding it should have received. Port Chester had received 48%. Glen Cove had received 44%. Riverhead had received 40% and Westbury had received 52%.

The data from AQE indicated that all together, New York owed these districts roughly $108,212,197.

Additionally, while these schools went underfunded, other school districts in wealthier communities according to Census data, were receiving more than the share of state foundation aid funding they were promised, not less.

For instance, the Rye School District had been funded at 113%, the Jericho School District at 192%, and the Chappaqua School District at 121%.

"It's just widening the gap, the achievement gap," said Carolee Brakewood, a mom in the Portchester School District.

"It's frustrating and a bit exhausting," said Jessica Vecchiarelli, a mom with two kids in the Ossining School District. "We're trying to support just very basic needs like keeping the lights on."

Vecchiarelli, Brakewood, and Zelaya have teamed up with other parents and administrators in these districts to beg New York for money.

They've written letters and even traveled to Albany in the hopes state lawmakers will hear their pleas.

The legislature has until April 1 to finalize the budget for the next fiscal year, and while lawmakers have called for increases in education spending, these schools worry the extra dollars will fall dismally short of their needs, forcing them to make even more cuts.

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