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Nothing Left To Squeeze

Area legislators and advocates gather to tell Gov. Cuomo that his budget will devastate education in upstate New York, and that they won’t take it quietly

by Erin Pihlaja on January 23, 2014 · 1 comment

Photo by Erin Pihlaja

“To give you sense of the nature of the need that we’re talking about and the clientele that we’re serving,” said Larry Spring, “this year we’ve seen our attendance in school skyrocket. Not because of any instructional programming—no attendance initiatives that we’ve done or been trying to do for the last number of years—it’s because we instituted a universal free breakfast and free lunch program. Every single student gets free breakfast and free lunch and. . . . If you take a look at the week-by-week attendance and you compare that against when food stamps are distributed, you’ll see the five days prior to the re-issuance of food stamp credits, our attendance is almost 100 percent. Our kids are hungry and they are depending on school for very basic things and we are getting crushed through these budgets.”

Spring is the superintendent of the Schenectady City School District. He joined other area superintendents and elected officials gathered at a press conference hosted by the Alliance for Quality Education and Citizen Action of New York at the Legislative Office Building in Albany on Wednesday (Jan. 22) to address Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposed 2014 Executive Budget, which was announced the day before. The budget included a $608 million increase to educational funding, but legislators and advocates called last week for $1.9 billion, which they say barely begins to cover the damages made by continuous cuts over the past five years. Many also feel that the money is being distributed unfairly.

Spring continued, “So it’s not just that the numbers that we’re talking about are wholly inadequate . . . but the manor in which those funds are distributed is wholly inequitable to the degree that I have filed a civil rights complaint against the governor, and against the Legislature and the State Education Department. I believe the manor in which they’re implementing this funding formula is discriminatory against poor, black, and latino students. I think that it’s an outrage, and that folks in this state should be very angry and should be irate and they should make their voices known that we will not allow these kinds of things to happen to our kids. We will not allow New York state to devolve further into a state of two New Yorks—first class and second class citizens—and I think that education is the paramount issue on which that’s fought.”

Executive director of AQE Billy Easton hosted the forum. “After five straight years of classroom cuts, this will mean yet another round of cuts. The governor has frequently harped on the idea that money doesn’t really matter in education, that we spend too much in education. The fact is that there are some school districts where we spend a lot, the ones that drive up the statewide average, [where] the outcomes of students are phenomenal, the course offerings are phenomenal but there is a huge inequality between wealthy and poor districts. One of the things that New York state is a leader in is inequality in educational opportunity, and the problem has gotten bigger in the governor’s four years in office. We are looking for him and the Legislature to substantially increase the amount of school aid.”

“Eighty-three Assembly [and Senate] members signed a letter asking for $1.9 billion because we’re all hearing about this in our districts, whether it’s poor, wealthy, urban, suburban, or rural,” said Patricia Fahy (Assembly District 109). “This was utterly disappointing yesterday. I represent four school districts and every one of them has said there are two to three percent increases that this budget would project and it just means more cuts in the classroom because as many of you know the three percent increase does not really even begin to cover the pension costs, the health care costs, salary increases—you name it, we all know our utility bills are going up more than that.”

Most of the speakers spoke positively of the governor’s plans to increase funding for universal pre-K and after school programs, but were concerned that the support would come on the back of struggling K-12 programs. “I represent 28 school districts, many of them rural and small city schools, and these were the schools that were hit the hardest with the state aid cuts,” said Sen. Cecilia Tkaczyk. “Why? Because they rely more on state aid. The cuts were deeper and we had less to cut. We support universal pre-K, a good direction to go in, but what about kindergarten? I don’t want to lose kindergarten or have schools forced to cut back on kindergarten.”

Spring addressed how previous cuts had affected the school system’s operating budget in Schenectady: “Over the last several years Schenectady has dealt with a tremendous amount of adversity in each of the last two budget seasons. We closed a school last year, we spent down our reserves, the comptroller recently came out and put Schenectady on the list as one of the most fiscally stressed schools in the state. We receive only 54 percent of the state aid that is promised us according to the foundation formula.”

School districts that are considered affluent are complaining as well. Superintendent of the Guilderland Central School District Marie Wiles said, “I think one thing probably everyone in this room would agree on is that we need high quality school districts in New York state. By any measure Guilderland is one of those high quality school districts. Over the last four years we have cut 153 positions, we’ve eliminated programs, we’ve reduced services to students. We’ve done all of this within the tax levy limit. We have found creative ways to share services, find efficiencies, save in non-instructional delivery of programs so we can drive money to instruction—frankly we’ve done everything the governor has asked.”

She wondered aloud how further cuts would impact the district and added, “But if we want quality school districts, why would we dismantle the ones that we have?”

Ivette Alfonso, the statewide board chair of Citizen Action of New York is also the mother of a daughter in the Albany school district. “This part is very personal to me. What I’m seeing of the impact of the budget cuts right now, I’m really shuddering to think about what’s going to happen in the future.”

She then expressed doubt at the ability of schools to prepare children for the rigorous testing procedures of the current curriculum, or for the future. “The governor likes to say that New York is open for business. If you’re going to be open for business you need people who can work in those businesses, who can start those businesses, and who can nurture them. If we don’t have well-educated citizens, that is not going to happen and it has to happen.”