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Young lobbyists work to get funding for Schenectady schools

Young lobbyists work to get funding for Schenectady schools

Hamilton Elementary School’s first-year Political Action Committee is made up of 10 students in grad
Young lobbyists work to get funding for Schenectady schools
Members of the Political Action Committee have a meeting at Hamilton Elementary School with Susan Alviene Friday, January 16, 2015.
Photographer: Peter R. Barber

The volunteer lobbyists, even if they don’t go by the word lobbyist, or even know its meaning, gathered around a pair of tables pushed together Friday morning to go over the numbers, recap their latest political action initiative and plot the next course for the educational institution.

Their goal is nothing less than to accomplish what the school’s top boss has been unable to do on his own.

Without notes, they rattled off the relevant percentages: The institution is being shortchanged, receiving only about 55 percent of its fair share from the state — a $62 million annual sleight. About 97 percent of similar institutions receive more, percentage-wise. They are not even asking for 100 percent of what the formula calls for: When asked for the sought figure, as a group they say 82 percent — the average.

“He hasn’t given us our fair share,” Lakhraj Narain said forcefully of Gov. Andrew Cuomo. “We want to be the average.”

“Maybe we can change his mind,” Jahddah Lennon said, “if we don’t vote for him.”

Narain and Lennon are 11 and sixth-graders at Hamilton Elementary School in Mont Pleasant. They are also part of the school’s first-year Political Action Committee, made up of 10 students in grades 3-6 who advocate for students in the adult world.

Their current issue: The Schenectady City School District receives far less than 100 percent funding under the state aid formula. Four of Hamilton’s Political Action Committee members were at a state Capitol rally Monday with mostly adults calling for equality in state funding.

“I want people to be able to hear us,” said Keri Delaney, an 11-year-old sixth-grader who is still upset Cuomo didn’t come out to listen to the protesters. “The governor doesn’t care.”

Certainly, the students’ position for more funding dovetails with that of the district, and certainly with that of Superintendent Laurence Spring, a vocal critic of the amount of state aid Schenectady receives.

In December it was learned the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights is moving forward with an investigation into the school district’s complaint against the state over the distribution of education aid. Spring filed a complaint in 2013, arguing the state’s formula to distribute school funding discriminates against districts with high concentrations of minority students.

Spring has filed complaints against Cuomo, the state Legislature, state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, the state Education Department and the Board of Regents.

The federal education department is looking over the complaint as it relates to the state Education Department and Board of Regents, and the allegation of discrimination against nonwhite students, Spring said.

But the school Political Action Committee, which met Friday with the executive committee of Hamilton’s student council (there is some overlap), doesn’t just parrot what the adults say.

“They get the impact,” said Susan Alviene, the second-grade teacher who oversees the PAC and took the students to the Capitol. “They get what we are doing without.”

And they get the issue’s details — “It’s astonishing,” said social worker Melanie Bennett, who oversees the student council — to the point that they can explain them to students as young as second grade.

“If we don’t have enough money, there won’t be enough for gym, music, art or the library,” explained Yveliz Tilison, a 9-year-old fourth-grader. “We want to be able to get our books fixed, and most are ripped up.”

At Friday’s meeting, the students, voting on their own, decided to hold an assembly for students in grades 2-6 to talk about how they believe Schenectady schools are being shorted, then embark on a letter-writing campaign involving all 357 students in those grades, targeting state officials.

The governor will release his budget proposal Jan. 21; the students want to deliver the letters by mid-February.

There was a debate among students whether to include second-graders in the process, since they may be too young to grasp the issues.

“The more notes [state officials] have,” 8-year-old third-grader Raymond Vanclief argued, “the more it might change his mind.”

The second-graders made the cut. The students, not the adults in the room, made the decision.

Spring said Hamilton Elementary in particular “has been pretty up in arms about the funding. It really resonates with that community.”

He notes that before taking up the school funding issue, its student Political Action Committee dove into redistricting and even attended a meeting.

“They had better questions than a lot of parents and adults,” Spring said. “They are not one-trick ponies.”

Spring said he didn’t put the students up to undertaking the funding initiative, nor is he directing them. But he believes they can be effective in ways he cannot.

“They have an authenticity to them that’s impossible for me,” Spring said. “There are close to 700 superintendents in the state, and every one of us feel we don’t get enough money. Kids are able to talk about it in a very, very real way.”

“When they understand the issues, they are able to bridge the gap. It’s an incredibly powerful thing.”

On the wall of the book storage room that served as the students’ meeting place hangs an adage: “Change is too important to leave with the experts.” After the meeting, the students were asked if they could change the world. Later on, was the consensus, when they become adults.

The adults in the room smiled. Truth is, bringing about change is what these students are already about.

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