The New York Lottery isn't just a game in Herkimer County.
With a dwindling tax base and shrinking corporate presence, most of the rural county's school districts rely heavily on annual distributions from the Lottery to stay afloat. One of every 10 dollars spent on education in the county comes from state-sanctioned games of chance.
"Districts such as ours are high-need, low-income and low-wealth in property values," said Robert Service, superintendent of the Ilion Central School District, which receives the most lottery money in Herkimer, a county in New York's Adirondacks region. "We're highly reliant on state aid."
While most people think of the state's gaming system as a fun way to spend a few dollars, the games serve as a major lifeline for hundreds of school districts in upstate New York, pumping millions of dollars a year into the economically depressed areas.
It's common knowledge that lottery money is used to help fund education throughout the state and that other forms of state aid provide the bulk of funding in high-needs districts, but the extent to which some districts rely on lottery money is striking.
Last school year, more than 300 school districts received 10 percent or more of their funding from the New York Lottery, according to an analysis of 2004-05 lottery distributions and school spending figures.
Seventeen of the most needy, located primarily in the northern and western portions of the state, get more than 15 percent of their funding from the Lottery.
Nearly 17 percent of the 2004-05 budget for the Tioga Central School District in Tioga County came from lottery funds, the highest percentage in the state, according to state figures. It was followed by Letchworth Central in Wyoming and Central Square in Oswego, both of which had 16 percent of their budgets paid for with lottery money.
Even the big cities upstate, Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse, get more than 10 percent of their budgets from the Lottery, compared with just over 5 percent in Yonkers and New York City.
"We're kind of a remote, economically depressed area," said Rodger Williams, business manager for the Edwards-Knox Central School District in St. Lawrence County. "As such, we don't have the tax base to draw from."
He said that as major industry dried up in northern and western parts of the state, residents fled, leaving many areas distressed.
"Some of the few schools that did have some industry in their tax base have lost that," Williams said. "We rely on 80 percent of our funding to come from the state. It's very crucial to our budget."
The desperate need upstate has resulted in a funding disparity elsewhere. Even though nearly three-quarters of the Lottery's $6 billion in sales came from the Catskills, Hudson Valley, New York City and Long Island, the regions received just 57 percent of the $2.2 billion distributed by the Lottery last school year. Nearly half was sent to schools in counties north and west of the Catskills that accounted for just one-quarter of lottery sales and 34 percent of the state's student population.
Though some believe that downstate districts are being shortchanged as a disproportionate share of aid is sent upstate, the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, which successfully sued to force the state to spend billions of dollars more to educate students in New York City, said the education pie is too small.
"Overall there is not sufficient money spent to pay for public schooling," said Geri Palast, CFE's executive director. "It's not a matter of moving money around from school district to school district."
Either way, the disparity isn't necessarily unfair, since the state's funding formula takes into account a district's financial need, said Judith Johnson, superintendent of the Peekskill school district.
Peekskill, which receives more lottery money per student than any district in the Lower Hudson Valley, is party to another lawsuit that seeks to increase school funding in high-poverty cities outside of New York City.
"Lottery funds are no longer additional aid to school districts, they have become part of the state aid allocations," Johnson said. "We want to rectify the inequitable funding that comes into small-city schools all over New York state."