February 07, 2020

FUND OUR FUTURE: Western New York schools agree: We need the funds we are owed

Author: Matt Smith
Source:  NYSUT Communications
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guidance office
Caption: WAITING AND WAITING. Students in line at the under-staffed guidance office at Niagara Falls High School. A shortage of state funding means the district can offer only one social worker for every 2,000 students and only eight guidance counselors districtwide. Photo by Matt Smith.

It’s just a few minutes past 10 a.m. on a Friday morning and already the guidance office at Niagara Falls High School is packed with students lined up against the wall waiting to be seen — so many, in fact, there aren’t enough chairs for all of them.

“Lines like this are common,” said Niagara Falls Schools Superintendent Mark Laurrie. “We need more support.”

A shortage of state funding means the district can offer only one social worker for every 2,000 students and only eight guidance counselors districtwide. Laurrie said it just simply isn’t enough to meet student needs in a district of 7,000 kids.

He also said it shouldn’t be this way, given that Niagara Falls is owed $13.7 million in state Foundation Aid funding.

“If we can’t fund kids the way we fund buildings, well, there’s something wrong.”

There is something wrong. Across the state, 400 districts are owed $3.4 billion in state Foundation Aid.

That’s why NYSUT officers Friday visited the Niagara Falls district as part of the union’s ongoing Fund Our Future bus tour which aims to call attention to the state’s failure to appropriately fund New York’s public schools.

“We’re saying don’t tweak (the formula); we’re saying fund the formula,” said NYSUT President Andy Pallotta.

As lawmakers at the Capitol negotiate the 2020–21 state budget, NYSUT is waging a fierce advocacy campaign to increase state school aid by $2.1 billion. The union backs a progressive tax plan to raise revenues through the passage of new taxes on billionaires and ultramillionaires in New York state, ensuring they pay their fair share.

Niagara Falls Teachers Association President Dan Weiss has been teaching in the district for 17 years. He said over that span, as the city has fallen on hard economic times, he’s noticed an increase in the number of students in need of emotional and mental-health services.

The funding shortfall, he said, has created challenges.

Though he said the school system has had some success closing the funding gaps through grants, “Eventually grants end. We need the funds we are owed.”

School counselor Adam Bianco agrees.

“Meeting those emotional needs,” he said, “requires funding.”

NYSUT officers Friday were also to visit schools in Williamsville and Kenmore-Tonawanda. Williamsville is owed $12.6 million in Foundation Aid. The needs of an increasing English language learner population and the mental health needs of students are among the pressing issues that Williamsville officials say they need to address through additional state funding.

Kenmore-Tonawanda is owed nearly $9 million in Foundation Aid. Educators there say the district is in desperate need of staff who can provide support in reading and math and to bolster remedial programs. That’s to say nothing of the fact the district has had to cut sixth grade exploratory language classes and technology training for younger students due to underfunding.

Meanwhile, in Niagara Falls, the long history of inadequate state aid has meant the district has not been able to staff a librarian at any of its elementary schools — for more than two decades.

In order to ensure children are being served, retired teachers come into the libraries to work with students.

“Every time I visit one of the elementary schools,” said district librarian Lori Moskaluk, her voice trailing off a bit. “It’s really sad.”

NYSUT — which besides Buffalo has already brought its bus tour to schools in the Capital Region, Rochester, Southern Tier, Westchester County, Long Island and New York City — will continue visiting districts throughout the state well into February.

Learn more about the "Fund Our Future" campaign at nysut.org/FundOurFuture.

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