April 2012
March 19, 2012

Competition for school aid a 'Wheel of Misfortune'

Author: Liza Frenette
Source: NYSUT United
Caption: Executive Vice President Andy Pallotta told students, teachers, parents and administrators that the proposal to make schools compete for promised state aid was simply unfair. Photo by Timothy Harrison Raab.

If school districts feel like they're being forced to buy vowels, well, just maybe they are.

Rather than distribute the full $805 million increase promised to schools, the governor proposes to channel $200 million of that money into a competitive grant program he created last year that essentially pits schools against one another.

Call it a "Wheel of Misfortune."

Districts that need the money most cannot afford to hire grant writers, and/or do not have the programs needed to make their schools competitive — because they do not receive enough state funding.

School funding should not be like the Wheel of Fortune game show, said NYSUT Executive Vice President Andy Pallotta. "We shouldn't have to buy vowels," Pallotta told an audience of 600 students, teachers, parents and administrators from 39 districts who came to Albany for a Rural and Small Cities Advocacy Day. They wanted Albany lawmakers to know what a day in school is like without language or business classes, music, art or technology courses.

Could lawmakers finally be getting the message?

Both the Senate and Assembly introduced budget bills that would shift the $200 million back into school aid, relieving districts of the need to compete for the money.

But the battle over school funding is not over. As NYSUT United went to press, negotiations with the governor were ongoing. Lawmakers have until April 1 to approve a new spending plan.

NYSUT, the Alliance for Quality Education, the New York State Board of Regents, the New York Association of Small City School Districts and a host of education groups have urged lawmakers to reject Cuomo's plan to expand a competitive grant program from $50 million to $250 million.

The $200 million, they maintain, should be used as part of the school aid formula to help more districts. Less money in that formula means the state's neediest districts get even less money per pupil than usual.

Three consecutive years of education cuts have slashed state aid to public schools by $3.2 billion. Rural and small city schools have lost $1.2 billion to budget cuts since 2010.

That's billion with a B.

In meetings with lawmakers, students and educators shared stories of the destructive consequences of their districts' ongoing funding losses.

Students from Canton, Ogdensburg, Massena, the Capital District and Schoharie County reported being asked in college admissions interviews why they had not been involved in more extra-curricular school activities — only to explain there are none. Teachers, administrators and staff have been laid off, and without full and fair funding, more positions will be lost. District reserve funds have been exhausted.

Elementary schools have been closed. Class sizes have been expanded — some ballooning to more than 30 students.

Music, arts, language, business and physical education programs have been eliminated in some schools, along with Advanced Placement courses. Kindergarten has been reduced to a half day in some schools, and may be completely eliminated in others.

Withholding money from schools in need is withholding access to the solution, said student Julia Henby of Hornell. "Yes, we are a poor community, but a poor community that can be salvaged," she said. "When these numbers are crunched remember the faces of the students."

Rebecca Horwitz, who taught seven years in Rondout Valley, said it is "extremely discouraging" to be one of the state's many laid-off teachers.

Small, rural schools do not have the tax base to support more school programs as state funding diminishes. With the property tax cap, they are unable to raise needed funds.

John Sipple of the Center for Rural Schools said for every 1,000 students in the wealthiest districts, the community can raise $550,000 per year. For every 1,000 students in the poorest district, they can only raise $50,000 a year.

"There's a polarization of districts and a growing discrepancy of opportunity," Sipple said. He "worries greatly" about losing pre-K, noting that for every $1 investment in high quality pre- K, society earns a return of $8.

Saranac Lake Central School Teachers Association member Don Carlisto said his district is down 41 jobs from two years ago, and has closed two elementary schools. Teachers have given concessions.

"We've done what he (the governor) said to do," he said.

Schoharie TA President Martin Messner spelled it out bleakly: The district has increased elementary class size, limited kindergarten to half day, and made cuts to social studies, science, music, guidance counseling, social work, library services, teachers, teaching assistants and aides.

Despite the plundering, there is still a $343,000 budget hole to fill.