March 12, 2015

At Fonda-Fultonville community forum, crowds roar to remove schools from 'life support'

Author: Liza Frenette
Source: NYSUT Communications
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Caption: Photo by Marty Kerins Jr.

Fee, fi, fo, fum
Fonda-Fultonville here they come!

They filled the auditorium 700 strong, coming from Johnstown, Amsterdam, Gloversville, Canajoharie, Wells, Fort Plain and Broadalbin-Perth, those snug, economically struggling towns just off I-90 West, where school districts have been tortured by state aid that's not nearly been adequate.

Many cried out for the need to "take our democracy back" as citizens have lost the right to one-person, one-vote with the tax cap; as school funding is tied to blackmail legislative proposals; and as the New York state constitutional right to local control over schools is being threatened.

Voices amplified by microphone explained clearly how New York, through mandated testing by for-profit companies, has turned over the reins of children's public education to private corporations.

Since the Gap Elimination Adjustment was enacted by the state in 2010-2011, school districts in the Fonda-Fultonville area have lost more than $66 million dollars, said Canajoharie School Superintendent Debbie Grimshaw. She repeated the number several times. Sixty-six million dollars.

"Most (of these)districts are high needs. Economic decisions should not be made on the backs of children who have no voice," said Grimshaw, as the crowd rose in a standing ovation.

Even Cardboard Cuomo, who was stage left, stood for her words.

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Part of the team of event organizers, left to right: Rich Peters, co-president, Amsterdam Teachers Association; Clint Wagner, President, Gloversville TA; Jim Murray, President, Fonda-Fultonville TA. Photo by Marty Kerins, Jr. 

Statewide, already $8.5 billion has been lost by New York schools. Cuomo wants to slip another $1.32 billion away from schools – away from students who already don't have a place to sit in overcrowded classrooms.

Mark Emancion, who works for the Alliance for Quality Education since leaving teaching due to the radical changes in the profession, told the crowd that he visited his former school in Watervliet last week. There were 35 kids in some classes, sitting on the floor and on radiators. Gym classes had 55 kids. There are no AP classes, no electives, no funding to maintain the tennis courts and no rainy day fund.

"We have a governor who is intent on creating a culture of failure," said Bianca Tanis, co-founder of New York state Allies for Public Education.

These speakers were part of a robust panel that used facts, figures and personal stories in their work as educators to tell the audience why it is so important to get busy and get loud in order to fend off those who have put public education in the crosshairs. Parents, teachers, students in the audience were urged to" Call, Write and Share" to elected officials, urging them to:

  • •stop the state's over testing;
  • •restore funding and eliminate GEA;
  • •halt Cuomo's quest to take away local control of schools;
  • •fight his proposals to send even more money to the doorsteps of for-profit charter schools;
  • •knock down his proposal to have half of teacher's assessments based on student test scores; and
  • •repeal the tax cap, which is undemocratic because it removes the right of one-person, one-vote.

Volunteers handed out postcards and petitions for people to sign. They will be mailed to elected officials.

U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko, D-NY, also urged people to contact their congressional leaders to protest the proposed HR5, which, he said, would further compound the school funding issue by allowing Title One money, which goes to high-need districts, to be spread out to other districts – and include private schools.

"This would be disastrous to public education," he warned.

Mike Lillis, high school physics teacher and president of the Lakeland Teachers Association, said already teachers and administrators ask: "How long can we keep this going before we become insolvent?" This year's freshmen, he said, will not have the same programs today's seniors have when they get to 12th grade. "You just put your district on life support awhile longer."

Clint Wagner, teacher and moderator for the event, said big losses came to Gloversville when GEA was first enacted. Now, Gloversville needs more programs for students in remedial services.

"We need additional AIS classes to really change the culture of our district, which is high poverty. We need a lot more programs in younger grades," said Wagner, president of the 265-member Gloversville Teachers Association.

While public schools scramble for money – teachers across the state have been fundraising for basic classroom supplies through coupon book sales and road races – operators of corporate charter schools are getting richer. A PowerPoint screen showed that Deborah Kenny, who owns the Village Academy Network (two charter schools with a total of 500 students), made a salary of $499,146 in 2013. Eva Moskowitz of Success Academies was paid $475,244.

Who pays for that? Wagner asked. "You do."

Big money is also made by Pearson and other for-profit test companies that develop and sell the tests, and then sell intervention programs to schools where students have failed those same tests.

"Our children's failure equals profit and dollars," said Tanis.

Rich Peters, seventh-grade social studies teacher and co-president of the Amsterdam TA with Gino Agresta, said Cuomo is "all about test prep and making money for (the for-profit companies.)"

Charter schools, Peters said, "are not accountable; they don't elect boards, they don't support students with the level of activities like we do – sports and clubs." They can choose not to accept students with special needs or disciplinary issues. In public schools, however, all students are welcome. "Regardless of their situation, they're entitled to a sound education," he said.

Many people in the crowd wore red shirts proclaiming "Support Public Education." They eagerly jumped to their feet to give shout-outs to panelists who spoke about the dark stain that testing is leaving on students and teachers.

Sixth-grade ELA teacher Laura Hayes-Bowles came to lend her voice to the crowd.

"We're making kids hate reading and writing," she said, describing how the stringent state modules require students to shred a book with nearly word-by-word analysis and high-level questioning beyond the scope of many students.

This year, Hayes-Bowles just stopped. She's letting students simply discuss books again, to enjoy reading.

"Taking a test and feeling defeated is not how they should feel," she said. For some students, just getting to school and getting a meal is a priority.

Jim Murray, local president of the Fonda-Fultonville TA, teaches fourth grade. Each year, that means he has to administer three state tests.

"I've lived with that testing the last 10 years. It's completely changed the curriculum. It's added pressure on teachers and kids. It's impossible to win this battle," he said.

Murray remains frustrated that social studies has been removed from the curriculum, except for some ELA-based history snippets.

"Civics? Government? Anything like that is completely unnecessary by design. I swear they don't want these kids to know how democracy works," said Murray.

He has conversations with colleagues teaching third and fourth grade who have invested 13, 15, and 16 years in the profession, but now want to leave.

"They're beaten down," he said. "It's 'kill and drill.'"

Lillis said no one is monitoring children in schools to see what damage is being caused by over testing – despite prevalent incidents of increased anxiety, illness, medication use and more.

"These are dismissive and dangerous reactions by proponents of testing," he said.

If the rigorous routine is harming these adults, he said, imagine what it's doing to third and fourth graders.

Even those who are not versed in details of GEA and APPR should write to the representatives and express concern about what they see happening in schools, said Kent McHeard, Amsterdam Board of Education president. "I don't know a whole lot about electricity, but I'm not going to sit in the dark until I do."

"We are the future of New York and he's not going to be around forever," said student panelist Alexandra Wagner. "He needs to get over it."

Assemblyman Marc Butler, R-Johnstown/Herkimer, said the governor's proposals are nothing more than "political extortion."

While the governor demeans schools and threatens to take them over if enough students cannot pass the tests, organizers of the Fonda-Fultonville forum reminded the crowd that Gov. Cuomo didn't pass his bar exam until the fourth time.

Butler said he was going to back to Albany with an idea for a bill: "If you can't pass the bar exam three times, you're out!"


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Keep up the fight! Take action at www.nysut.org/allkidsneed.