Persistence pays off for Catholic schools - to the tune of $6 million. Advocacy from the NYS Catholic Conference State Coordinating Committee, Catholic school staff and parents has caused New York state to agree to modify the formula used to reimburse all state non-public schools for mandated services those schools provide.
In 2002, New York mandated that all schools in the state take part in a Comprehensive Attendance Policy. The nine-point policy includes: taking attendance throughout the day; follow-up phone calls when students are missing; incentives and disincentives for attendance issues; and conferences to follow up with problem scenarios.
"Basically, the whole thing is to encourage attendance and make sure the kids come to school, because they can't learn if they're not in school," said Christian Riso, assistant superintendent of Catholic Schools, in charge of Government Programs for the diocese, and a member of the State Coordinating Committee.
The NYS Catholic Conference State Coordinating Committee, made up of representatives from all New York dioceses, meets to discuss both federal and state legislation that affect Catholic schools, then, following the lead of the bishops, establishes statewide action related to advocacy regarding existing, pending and potential legislation.
When New York implemented the policy, the state budget did not account for non-public schools. These schools pay staff to oversee the attendance policy and other mandated services such as various test assessments; reporting basic education data systems; an immunization program; and pesticide notifications, among others. Non-public schools are supposed to receive reimbursements for the cost of implementing state mandates if they meet the requirements of the mandates and file the proper paperwork.
"The Comprehensive Attendance Policy was a new law and required new funding because they didn't think about the fact that we would be doing that mandate as well. So when they put the law into place, they didn't really have the funding to pay for it. They didn't plan ahead. They didn't realize that non-public schools were going to be doing that same thing," Riso explained.
For example, in a November 2014 notice to public schools, the NYS Department of Education admitted that CAP claims exceeded estimated funding, thus they reimbursed schools only 77.25 percent of claims. Riso points to the economic recession of 2007-2009 and "bad formulas" to determine reimbursements as the reason for the insufficient funding available.
Through advocacy and a never-let-it-slide attitude, the State Coordinating Committee urged that the funds be put into the budget so the schools would receive the reimbursements owed to them. The 2015 state budget began a two-year process of paying back the claims made by the individual schools. A total of $250 million is being paid out statewide. Elementary schools in the Diocese of Buffalo have already received $2,373,123, and area high schools received $3,960,724 in reimbursements since September 2015. Each school must file a claim to receive its share.
"Every year, I'm sure, since 2003, the State Coordinating Committee, meets with members of the NYS legislature to ask for the things that we believe are due to our Catholic schools, especially this back debt. They never denied that they owed these funds to us, it was just a matter of putting it into the budget and clarifying the formula," Riso said, adding, "These are just the funds that were paid back so far, and only the funds from September 2015 through today," explained Riso. "There were other payments of funds owed to our schools for the same reason paid prior to September 2015 and there are additional amounts still owed to us that will be paid out in the future."
The Diocese of Buffalo closed 10 parish elementary schools after the 2013-2014 school year. These parishes will receive their reimbursements as well. In the case of high schools, their governing institutions will be reimbursed. The Department of Catholic Schools still works with closed schools to get their money back to them.
"It affects the parish when a school has to take on debt. It's not just the school, it's the whole parish. We're glad to be able to give that back. We can't be thankful enough for what the parishioners do for our schools. The parishioners are the ones funding our Catholic schools. Tuition is only a part of it," Riso said.
At a recent principals' meeting, Riso asked how they would use the funds. Someone yelled out, "To pay bills!"
"That seems to be the prevailing sentiment on how the funds will be used," he said.