Students, educators, parents and school board members at a Capital Region legislative forum Thursday night came from 10 very different school districts, but they were all on the same page as they talked about how a lack of state funding is hurting their schools.
The community event was organized by a broad based committee representing 10 suburban and rural districts including Averill Park, Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake, East Greenbush, Guilderland, New Lebanon, Schodack, Scotia-Glenville, South Colonie, Taconic Hills and Voorheesville. Each of the 10 average- and below average-wealth districts are in funding tiers that receive the lowest percentage increases in Foundation Aid. As the districts receive aid increases considerably less than the rate of inflation, the financial burden is shifting from the state to the local taxpayers — or districts are forced to cut programs or leave staff positions open.
“A forum like this brings together a lot of different voices, but we all agree we need to do what’s best for the students,” said East Greenbush Teachers Association Drew Romanowski, who was on the organizing committee. “It’s important for our lawmakers to hear directly from the schools in their districts.”
“We are being strangled by the tax cap and the governor’s state aid proposal is totally unacceptable,” said Voorheesville TA Co-President Kathleen Fiero. She was surrounded by more than a dozen educators wearing purple school spirit t-shirts.
South Colonie TA President Jim Duffy (pictured above at left) wasted no time button-holing State Sen. Neil Breslin, D-Albany (center), and Assemblywoman Pat Fahy, D-Albany (right), before the event began. “The governor’s budget is not fair and the tax cap needs to be changed,” Duffy said.
Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake Superintendent Patrick McGrath explained a series of slides showing how average and below-average wealth districts really do rely on state aid, with up to 40 percent of their revenue coming from the state. Meanwhile, student needs continue to grow, including an increase in English language learners, students with disabilities and mental health issues.
To drive home the need for schools to be able to offer advanced coursework, extracurricular activities and enrichment programs, the event featured an impressive performance by the East Greenbush concert choir and a number of high school students who explained how they benefited from their districts’ varied offerings.
Schodack senior Makaila Maier (pictured above at left), who serves as a student member on the Board of Education, poignantly asked why her small rural district is forced to cut one program to pay for another.
“We always have to make a choice. Give something up,” she said. “As a student there are so many things I wish I could have done, like had a choice of more than one (foreign) language or gone on more field trips. Why do we have to make these kind of choices?”
Makaila concluded with a shout-out to several of her teachers in the audience, noting how they always go the extra mile, whether it’s working extra hours or answering those emails at all times of the day. “My teachers have truly inspired me,” she said, so much that she’s decided to become a teacher herself. Her next stop is SUNY Plattsburgh, where she will study to be a special education teacher.
“You could tell the students really captured the attention of the legislators,” Romanowski said. “It’s one thing for us as adults to advocate for our schools, but when they hear from the students, it really has an impact.”