Capital Region school superintendents this week called on state lawmakers to boost education spending, stabilize local tax caps, bolster the Education Department budget and remake teacher evaluations.
The legislative proposals largely mirror those laid out by a statewide coalition of education groups in the fall, as well as funding levels recently recommended by the Board of Regents — a $2.2 billion state education aid increase.
Moreover, pointing to the “fragile recovery” of districts still rebounding from years of cuts during the economic downturn, the superintendents’ legislative position paper urges lawmakers to keep one thing at the forefront of their minds: “First, do no harm.”
“If I could advise our Legislature, it would be to allow yourself time to develop policy and seek input in do it in a manner that is transparent …” Cobleskill-Richmondville Superintendent Carl Mummenthey said. “It’s hard to impose policy on educators without engaging them in the creation of that policy.”
The school leaders also hope that low tax caps next year — with current projections slightly above zero — will focus legislative attention on unlinking the annual caps from the national inflation index. The officials argue inflation doesn’t account for major schools costs, health insurance, salaries and more, and that its yearly fluctuations create uncertainty in long-term planning.
Wealthier districts are more reliant on local tax revenues than lower-income districts, but Schenectady Superintendent Larry Spring recently shared concerns with his school board that the district may face a “negative” tax cap next year. Other superintendents said they will need new state money just to keep up with growing costs and maintain existing programs, some of which have only recently been restored.
“We are more dependent on the local levy than state aid, so the tax cap limits this year loom large,” Niskayuna Superintendent Cosimo Tangorra Jr. said.
The districts – and education advocates more broadly – are pushing lawmakers to end the Gap Elimination Adjustments, money owed to mostly low-need districts that had to forego some funding during the economic downturn. Niskayuna schools have over $1.6 million in outstanding gap funding and Shenendehowa in Clifton Park has over $2.5 million outstanding.
The region’s higher-need districts like Schenectady and Albany school districts would benefit from the groups other major funding proposal: boost funding based on the states foundation aid formula. Under that funding structure, Schenectady schools are underfunded by nearly $60 million, and Albany schools by nearly $38 million.
More broadly, the superintendents warn, lawmakers should listen to the voices of educators and parents as they go about developing any new education policy. The group writes: “much can be learned from the hurried reform efforts” in recent years that left teachers livid over evaluations largely tied to student assessments and stirred parent angst over those same state tests.
Pointing to few specifics, the position paper calls for the development of a “fair, credible and reliable” teacher evaluation system. The group argues that direct observation of teachers can be effective but warn that testing should not be overemphasized and that multiple tests should be used as indicators of teacher performance.
“If you are going to use student achievement [to evaluate teachers], certainly multiple measures need to be used,” Tangorra said.
Charles Dedrick, superintendent of the Capital Region BOCES, said it is important districts can sustain funding levels that help support the region’s technical and career education programs. “Anytime there is a limitation on funding it affects everybody,” he said.
While not included in last week’s proposals, Dedrick said BOCES programs plan to push lawmakers to rework the calculation of how career and technical Education teacher salaries are aided by the state. Under the current formula, those salary reimbursements are frozen at 1990 levels, even as salaries have increased since. School districts have to foot the bill for the difference, Dedrick said.
Reach Gazette reporter Zachary Matson at 395-3120, [email protected] or @zacharydmatson on Twitter.