Black History Month

Schools in the city of Syracuse see no integration in sight

Emma Comtois | Digital Design Editor

Timothy Rudd coaches 8-10-year-old kids in a basketball league at McChesney Community Center Syracuse. On one occasion he took his team to a gym so they could practice. He was surprised to see the stark divide between his team and the gym’s team.

His team was predominantly black. The other was white.

“Wow, we can’t even play basketball together anymore,” Rudd said.

Rudd is a Syracuse native, works for a nonprofit social policy research organization and is running for Syracuse Common Council. He used to play for a rec league, too, but left once he realized the racial divide because he felt uncomfortable. Of the four teams two were white and two were black.

“It was like, ‘Are we playing the white team today or are we playing the black team?’” Rudd said.


He graduated from Henninger High School in 2000 and returned to the Syracuse City School District from 2004 to 2006 as a Spanish teacher. Within those few years, he saw the schools’ segregation increase.

Public schools in New York state are the most segregated in the country, according to a 2014 report released by UCLA’s Civil Rights Project. Based on federal enrollment statistics from 1989 to 2010, school segregation has increased. In Syracuse, the percent of white students enrolled in public schools decreased from 89 percent in 1989-1990 to 79 percent in 2010-2011. The Syracuse City School District borders Westhill Central School District and Jamesville Dewitt Central School District. The Westhill border ranks as the 15th-most segregated in the country, due to the 38 percent poverty difference between them. The Jamesville Dewitt border ranks as the 32nd-most segregated with a 36 percent poverty difference, according to a study by EdBuild published in 2014.

The 1974 United States Supreme Court case Milliken v. Bradley played a role in strengthening segregation, according to the EdBuild study. The court ruled that schools don’t have to integrate across district borders. Because these districts are contained within their own borders and receive funding through local property taxes, public schools’ funds are often a reflection of the wealth within the school district, said Zahava Stadler Manager of Policy and Research at EdBuild.

Other phenomena that influence district composition include housing segregation and “white flight.” There are solutions out there — distributing taxes at the state level rather than at a local one can evenly spread wealth to places that need it. Busing has worked in integrating other districts, but it has not been implemented here.

There are no active integration efforts in the Syracuse public school district.

“The way we fund schools’ incentivizes segregation,” Stadler said.

George Theoharis, the chair of teaching and leadership in Syracuse University’s School of Education, said segregated schools have unequal resources and opportunities. Theoharis added that the city school district’s dollar doesn’t go as far as in a suburb’s school district.

Every state has an education funding formula that determines how much funding each school district will need, Stadler said. The formula varies based on whether the school has high rates of poverty, children with special needs or English as a second language programs.

In New York state, schools are funded through a mix of property taxes and government funding. Policy varies on this approach in other states. Depending on how wealthy a school district is, funding varies. The higher the property value, the more money available. The amount a district gets from the state is determined by subtracting assumed local property taxes received from the district’s financial need.

“There’s no magic law that says that property taxes collected locally should be primarily for education and that those tax revenues should stay local,” Stadler said. “It’s a tradition in this country and is the way it generally works, but there is no formula that says that’s the right way to do it.”

Vermont has implemented an education tax, which is pooled at the state level and distributed based on need. Hawaii operates the island as one school district, Stadler added.

High-wealth communities with accordingly high property values sometimes increase their property taxes by a small amount, reaping extra funds for the district as a whole. Stadler says schools benefit because they are able to introduce things like college-level classes and new athletic facilities. At the same time, having good public schools keeps the area’s property values high.

“There’s a virtuous cycle there,” Stadler said.

Wealthy communities have the incentive to self-segregate and draw borders around themselves, mainly because their property taxes can buy special resources for their own children. The separation creates a homogenous upper-income school district, Stadler said. In mixed-income school districts, there is less incentive to raise local property taxes because money is used on groups of students with greater needs.

Since 1980, the population of Syracuse has steadily declined according to census data, dropping from 170,105 residents to 145,170. Meanwhile, Onondaga County’s population has remained between 458,000 and 469,000 residents, meaning the city’s surrounding areas and suburbs have bulked up while the city has drained.

“One of the things we’ve seen for decades is white flight from the city and into suburban districts,” said Theoharis.

Theoharis added that when people of color become rich enough to move to the suburbs, they will.

Communities have used fair housing inclusion and rezoning to integrate. They have redrawn school district boundaries to encompass larger zones — meaning a more diverse range of property taxes. Some districts have made policies regarding interdistrict school choice so districts cross set boundaries.

In an interview with The Daily Orange, Theorharis advocated for integrated school districts across boundaries.
“We have no evidence in this country of providing separate education that serves all kids well,” he said. “And we have decades, and decades, and decades of evidence that when we have separate schools we do not invest in the same way.”

Theoharis said integration brings a collective consciousness and capital that allows for different kinds of voices to be heard. People grow up with an understanding of people who look and think differently.

The City of Syracuse and Onondaga County discussed merging government services last year. Theoharis said the decision intentionally left schools out of the deal.

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