‘We cannot afford to leave another generation behind’

Schenectady school advocates, officials renew funding push
Schenectady school leaders and advocates gather Thursday at Mont Pleasant Middle School.
Schenectady school leaders and advocates gather Thursday at Mont Pleasant Middle School.

Categories: News, Schenectady County

SCHENECTADY — School advocates and city school district officials Thursday renewed their annual push to demand increased state funding for one of the poorest districts in the region and state.

Gathering in the front hall of Mont Pleasant Middle School, they cited the district’s funding shortfall — over $40 million less per year than is called for by a state funding formula — and emphasized the high needs

But they also expressed dismay that, year after year, they have to scrape for the funding they see as necessary to provide Schenectady students a basic education.

“Here we are yet again,” said 19-year-old Mikayla Foster, who graduated from Schenectady High School last year. “We cannot afford to leave another generation behind because of the lack of adequate education funding.”

Juliet Benaquisto, a special education teacher and leader of the Schenectady teachers union, said the funding battle has been around as long as she has worked in the district.

“It’s disheartening that, in my 30th year, we still have to fight and advocate to get what we really need,” she said.

The advocates are unlikely to get the full funding they have called for as lawmakers enter a tough budget cycle.

During his State of the State speech Wednesday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo spent little time on education policy or funding issues. But he did acknowledge a need to focus a larger share of state aid on the state’s neediest districts.

He said the state needs to address inequities in schools across the state and “dedicate more of the state’s school aid to poorer districts.”

The comments, though not yet backed by a specific funding proposal, echo the priorities of the Board of Regents and other state education officials. But the governor’s words do little for a district like Schenectady that receives a smaller share of the funding called for under a state formula than other districts in the region.

“I think it’s great that he said it; however, I think saying it is the least of the things we hope for,” Schenectady schools Superintendent Larry Spring said. “The only way to see what he means by that statement is what he has in his budget.”

Spring has acknowledged the coming budget year is likely to be a difficult one, coming on the heels of what he called the district’s first significant investment in new programs and a local tax cut. While it’s still too early for the district to even know how much it will need to maintain the same level of services next year, Spring said facing cuts would be a huge step backward.

“If we have to cut things that we just put in place, or we have raise taxes, that’s demoralizing. That’s a major setback for us,” Spring said.

District staff were joined Thursday by members the Schenectady Equity in Education Coalition, a group of clergy and activists that formed two years ago to lobby for increased school funding.

The group has also presented the district with its own budget demands.

The organization urged school board members last month to consider a list of budget priorities that focus largely on increasing staff diversity and expanding mediation, diversion and other programs that address student discipline in more supportive ways.

The list of budget priorities include funding for a chief diversity officer in the district; districtwide anti-racism training; and coordinators tasked with overseeing an expansion of restorative justice practices like peer mediation and diversion.

“The No. 1 ask really was a more diverse staff and teaching body,” said Jamaica Miles, a Schenectady activist who works with the coalition.

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