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Schenectady forum: Public focus critical in school finance fight

Schenectady forum: Public focus critical in school finance fight

Will public schools survive? “Yes” was the answer of local education advocates, but they also said u

Will public schools survive?

“Yes” was the answer of local education advocates, but they also said underfunding and ever-increasing expectations and regulations are making that difficult.

About 75 people attended a forum titled “Will Public Schools Survive and Does it Matter?” held at the Price Chopper Community Center. The forum was sponsored by the Schenectady County League of Women Voters and was recorded for broadcast on Open Stage Media public access.

Former interim Schenectady Superintendent of Schools John Yagielski said he is confident that schools will survive. He pointed out that the education system has faced tough times before, particularly in the 1970s when the United States saw both a president and vice president resign, a period of huge inflation and economic uncertainty.

Yagielski added that the federal government has piled on more regulations beginning with the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 1965. This continued with regulations to ensure that women had equal access to academics and athletics and mandates for special education students. No Child Left Behind in the 2000s and the more recent Race to the Top reform initiatives have taken this to another level.

The federal government hasn’t attached additional funding for any of these initiatives and the state has cut back on aid in recent years. Also, Yagielski said the state put in place the tax cap, which is tying districts’ hands.

Schenectady High School senior Oriana Miles said she wouldn’t be the person that she is without some of her classes, particularly in the fine arts.

“How much should we have to sacrifice for what I think is an essential need in culture and what makes up a person?” she said.

She said she hates the thought of teachers who inspired her being laid off because of budget cuts in the Schenectady City School District, which is facing a budget gap of more than $9 million.

Miles said she had a particularly good English teacher who convinced her that reading wasn’t so bad. Some students need that extra help to overcome adversity.

Suburban districts like the Niskayuna Central School District are also facing adversity. Rosemarie Jaquith, co-president of the Niskayuna PTO Council, said her parents were from Cuba and she wants her children to have the best education possible. That is being threatened, as Niskayuna is facing a $6 million budget gap and is looking at possibly closing one of its two middle schools or one of its five elementary schools.

Bob Fiorini, president of the Duanesburg Central School District Board of Education, said his rural district is facing the same challenges as others. Decreasing state aid during the last few years has resulted in programs being cut.

Fiorini said some districts have said they may be facing “educational insolvency” in the next years — meaning they won’t have enough money to offer a basic education.

For many communities, the school district is the largest employer, according to Fiorini. In addition to that negative consequence of layoffs, there will also be another ripple effect to budget cutbacks.

That is where the community comes in. Deborah Bush-Suflita, senior manager of Capital Region BOCES Communications Service, said residents have to reach out to their elected officials by phone, email, letters and in person.

Legislators are hoping to finish drafting a state budget by March 18, according to Bush-Suflita. One of education advocates’ main priorities is to restore some of the funding to schools that had been cut by the so-called Gap Elimination Adjustment (GEA) during the last few years when the state was trying to balance its budget.

“Schools today are receiving less aid today than they were receiving four years ago,” she said.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has proposed total education aid of $21.1 billion, which is a cumulative increase for the 2013-2014 school year of $889 million.

Legislators will typically say that they don’t have the money, but Bush-Suflita said that during the last two years, the Legislature has awarded $41 million in so-called “bullet aid,” which is additional funds doled out by the party in control to certain districts.

In addition, Democrats in the Legislature including State Senator Cecilia Tkaczyk, D-Duanesburg, are pushing for an additional $350 million on top of that for needy school districts.

Whatever amount of aid is appropriated, Bush-Suflita said state legislators must also adjust the funding formula to ensure a fair distribution of aid across the state.

The third priority is mandate relief. Every mandate has an interest group, which makes that difficult, according to Bush-Suflita. However, mandate relief was promised as part of the tax cap legislation and it hasn’t happened.

Despite the bad news, Bush-Suflita said she sees the tide starting to turn a little bit. Two regional education forums this year have drawn close to 2,000 people and there are more organized lobbying efforts by parents.

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