March 04, 2024

A united front in Mount Vernon

A united front in Mount Vernon
Caption: NYSUT President Melinda Person speaks at a rally Friday in Mount Vernon; under proposed changes to the funding formula, Mount Vernon schools stand to lose nearly $3 million in state aid.

As state lawmakers prepare to enter the final month of budget negotiations, a crowd of elected officials, teachers, parents and administrators rallied in the Mount Vernon City School District as one fierce, united group against the governor’s proposed school aid cuts.

“We have a campaign at NYSUT that Public Schools Unite Us. Well this campaign has brought everyone together,” NYSUT President Melinda Person said from the steps of Benjamin Turner Middle School.

“We have Republicans here, we have Democrats here, we have Assembly, we have Senate,” she said. “We have management and union. We all agree that we love our great public schools in the state of New York, and we're going to fight till the end to make sure that they get the funding that our students deserve.”

Mount Vernon would lose 3.5 percent of its state aid, or $2.9 million, under Gov. Kathy Hochul's budget proposal to cut Foundation Aid, and the district has no ability to absorb those losses.

Mount Vernon was grappling with financial challenges even before the Foundation Aid cuts were proposed in January, said Superintendent Dr. K. Veronica Smith. The district is one of just three in the state labeled as in “significant financial stress,” something the district and board attribute to the services required for its high-need student population and a tax base that cannot support those costs.

“For the 2024-25 school year we have already had to cut staff, and as we attempt to navigate our way out of this fiscal stress, losing the $2.9 million next year would be catastrophic,” Smith said.

She called on anyone who has ties to the district near and far — including influential figures such as actor Denzel Washington, who grew up in Mount Vernon, and rapper Ludacris, whose father is from the area — to make their voices heard about how the proposal could effectively limit basic academic services for their students. Seventy percent of the more than 6,600 students in the district are economically disadvantaged.

“I don't beg, but for this cause, I'm begging,” she said.

The district has “amazing staff, amazing teachers, amazing administration,” but they need help, said PTA President Ben Bakke.

“Speaking as a parent of a special-needs student, they’re doing all they can right now,” he said. “And to cut funding at a time like this, or anytime, really, is just beyond the pale.”

Sen. Shelley Mayer and Assemblymember Michael Benedetto, chairs of their respective chambers’ education committees, both promised that the Legislature was determined to restore the full Foundation Aid funding in the final budget, due before April 1.

“Thank you for fighting with us,” Mayer said. “This is a fight. This is not a calm thing. This is a passionate thing. This is a thing that goes to the heart of what we do as elected officials, as parents, as teachers and people who live in this community. This is unacceptable and we will not stand for it.”