September 29, 2011


School leaders detail impact of state cuts

Alliance for Quality Education gathers feedback from educators as it prepares to lobby state

Staff Reporter

ITHACA — New York’s school districts are running out of ways to educate students as money becomes scarcer and the state government’s expectations grow, area school leaders said Wednesday to Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton.
Five superintendents of schools, two teachers’ union presidents, a statewide teachers’ union official, a BOCES district superintendent and a board of education member spoke with Lifton for over an hour at Tompkins County Public Library.
The Alliance for Quality Education, an advocacy group, has been holding such meetings across the state in the past week to gather information that the group will use in lobbying the state Legislature during budget time.
Some meetings involve legislators, such as the one chaired by Lifton (D-Ithaca), a former school teacher who has fought education budget cuts.
The educators said they are running out of ways to keep continuing state aid cuts and a tightening of tax dollars from hurting children’s education. Their frustration has been growing as boards of education wrestle with budget cuts and layoffs, and they think the public has little understanding of what is going on behind Albany’s rhetoric.
“In general, until recently New York was generous to its schools and proud of its schools,” said Ellen O’Donnell, Tompkins-Seneca-Tioga BOCES district superintendent. The last two years, she said, New York’s financial crisis has cut off funding even as state officials deride how students perform academically.
She said school districts are headed for bankruptcy even as teachers wonder how they will measure up when the state begins to evaluate them this year — and how they are being evaluated.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo pushed through a 2 percent tax increase cap last year after thinking such a cap was successful in Massachusetts, but he did not lift state mandates as that state did, said Larry Spring, Cortland superintendent of schools.
Sandy Sherwood, Dryden superintendent of schools, said the public backs the tax cap without understanding its impact and thinks school districts are “playing with numbers” when they try to make up for the lost revenue.
Spring said he was bothered by the way “political capital” follows wealthier school districts, leaving poorer districts without resources.
“It screams at me every time I look at the data,” Spring said.
Lifton said state politics has changed since decades ago, when state legislators saw education as the last place to cut money.
“It used to be an unwritten social contract to play politics with adults,” Spring said. “Now politics is played with kids.”
Other school leaders said they watch their districts being slowly torn apart by not just a loss of money but struggles over who gets the remaining funds.
Board of education members become pitted against each other as they decide what to keep in their district budget, said Paula Hurley, Trumansburg superintendent of schools. James Abrams, Groton superintendent, said residents ask him if they will have a school district at all in a few years.
Other superintendents were from Ithaca and Newfield.
The school leaders talked about having larger class sizes, staff who hold multiple positions — such as a high school principal who is also athletic director — and teachers who spend $300 to $400 per year of their own money to buy supplies and food for their students.
Teacher accountability and fiscal responsibility, phrases that carry weight in education, have been used to create divisions among people, said Lori Megivern, Cortland United Teachers president.
Abrams asked Lifton if Cuomo understands the impact of his aid cuts, tax cap and push to raise standards. Lifton said she was not sure.
Abrams said Cuomo should have listening sessions with school officials.
Lifton urged the school leaders to change the conversation about education through letter campaigns, meetings with newspaper editorial boards and rallies.


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