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Teachers union begins statewide tour of schools at Mohonasen

Instructors urge smaller class sizes, expanded programs
Paul Pecorale, vice president of NYSUT, talks to first-graders in Rachel Schulde's first-grade class at Bradt School.
PHOTOGRAPHER:
Paul Pecorale, vice president of NYSUT, talks to first-graders in Rachel Schulde's first-grade class at Bradt School.

Categories: News, Schenectady County

Michele Hackett, who has taught at Bradt Primary School in the Mohonasen Central School District for over two decades, can remember when she had as few as 18 students in her class. This year she has 25 students.

The extra students make it harder for Hackett to offer students the level of attention and personalization she said her students increasingly need to keep pace in school. She said the academic, social and emotional needs of her students have increased in recent years, along with the state’s expectations of what students are able to do. At the same time, her class size has increased and program offerings have tightened.

“Yet, we still have the same demands in terms of curriculum and outcomes,” Hackett said Wednesday during a tour of Bradt school by officials at New York State United Teachers, the state’s powerful teachers union.

Bradt’s principal, Leslie Smith, said she doesn’t like leaving the building this year because, as part of a series of budget cuts last year, the district eliminated assistant principals from primary schools. Assistant principals are often the front line in dealing with student behavior and communicating with parents. Now, Smith is the only administrator in the building.

Mohonasen’s last budget season eliminated around 20 positions across the district through retirements and layoffs, but the district still faces a budget gap that promises to grow in the coming years if the district doesn’t make more cuts, boost local taxes or score major funding increases from the state.

“It’s tough when you get to the spring every year and you wonder is this a year of cuts,” said Chris Patterson, a fifth-grade special education teacher at Pinewood School and president of the Mohonasen Teachers Association. “You feel dejected you can’t give your students everything you want to. It’s not fair to them and it’s not fair to our teachers.”

Mohonasen district officials argue the state should pony up more funding, citing the gap in district funding and what is called for under the state’s foundation aid formula. The district last year received about 75 percent of the funding called for in the formula, or about $4 million short.

Superintendent Shannon Shine has said he thinks the district can “press pause” on more budget cuts this year in an effort to buy time for legislative shifts that would improve the district’s funding situation. But if increased funding doesn’t materialize, the district budget shortfall is likely to grow in the coming years.

The Mohonasen visit marked the first stop in what NYSUT promises to be a statewide effort to highlight the needs of students and teachers in schools across the state, while pressuring lawmakers to boost overall education funding.

The union leaders kicked off the so-called “Fund Our Future” tour, which will continue Thursday with visits in Westchester County and at the state Capitol next Wednesday, rallying the support of lawmakers and calling for full funding of foundation aid, the state’s core education funding formula.

The state Board of Regents earlier this winter called for $2.1 billion in new state education spending, including what would serve as a down payment to fully fund foundation aid over three years. But the state already faces a $6 billion budget deficit, and state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli this week announced that the base tax cap for school districts will be 1.8 percent, which is then adjusted based on district-level factors.

Andy Pallotta, president of NYSUT, on Wednesday called for new taxes on the state’s billionaires and multi-millionaires to support increasing education funding. He also dismissed Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s effort to reframe the education funding debate to focus on funding disparities within districts rather than funding disparities among districts, which many advocates point to as chief driver of education disparities in the state.

“I don’t buy that at all,” Pallotta said of the governor’s argument, adding that the state should fully fund its own funding formula. “Did you give the money to the schools?”

The union leaders joined Shine and Smith on a tour of the school, visiting classrooms and hearing from teachers about the challenges they face and the resources they wish they had for their students.

The teachers all pointed to class size as a top issue, arguing that they are unable to offer their students the individual attention they wish they could. Teachers also talked about programs that had been used to assist English language learners and other groups of students. Smith, the school principal, said they had hoped to renew an effort focused on supporting struggling first-graders with special attention but the plan was scrapped amid the budget cuts.

“We have had those programs in the past and they have proven to be effective,” said Laura Eggleston, the school’s teacher of English language learners.

Christine Baumann, a kindergarten teacher at Bradt, said she has seen student needs increase in recent years as class sizes have grown. She noted the critical role that kindergarten plays in laying a strong foundation for the years of schooling to come.

“This is where it all starts,” she said. “Having less children to work with would help us meet their needs better.”

During a stop in the library to meet the school’s one librarian, who is shared with the Pinewood School and alone serves around 1,200 students, Shine said the funding cuts are undoubtedly hurting students. The goal is to minimize that hurt, he said.

“Is harm being done?” Shine said during the tour. “Yeah, harm has been done and we would like to avoid doing more harm.”

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