March 08, 2024

South Seneca says cuts are too costly

Author: Molly Belmont
Governor to rural schools: You can’t have nice things
Caption: Thursday, NYSUT President Melinda Person and AFT President Randi Weingarten visited South Seneca Central School District to learn more about how the proposed foundation aid cuts will create disparities between it and other larger districts.

South Seneca reading teacher Andrea Puls has been meeting with one fifth grader one-on-one every day since the beginning of the year to help him achieve grade-level reading.

When he arrived, he was reading at a Kindergarten level.

“He has a learning disability, but I’m giving him one-on-one instruction right now, and he’s blossoming. He’s growing, and the prospect of sending him to sixth grade next year with no reading support and limited special ed support breaks my heart,” said Puls, a member of the South Seneca Teachers Association. “This is the support he needs, and if the cuts go through, he’s not going to get it.”

This week, NYSUT President Melinda Person visited the South Seneca Central School District to find out how the proposed cuts to Foundation Aid would impact students and staff.

South Seneca is a largely rural district in the Finger Lakes region, with a high poverty rate and a large population of transient students.

To meet the changing needs of the community, the South Seneca Elementary School implemented integrated, co-taught classrooms, enabling Puls and her colleagues to provide targeted, tiered support for reading and math. The co-taught model also allows the team to meet the needs of advanced students, with small-group readings and special projects.

Unfortunately, these are exactly the resources that would be on the chopping block if the cuts go through. South Seneca district would lose more than $1.5 million, or 16 percent.

When Puls talks about her fifth student, her voice breaks. “He’s going to be a farmer. That’s what he tells me. He doesn’t have to know how to read, because he’s going to be a farmer.”

Puls scoffs at the suggestion, and yet that seems to be the very message that many educators in rural areas are getting about aid cuts, which they say will decimate their ability to deliver special education, as well as AP courses, electives and social and emotional supports for their students.

“Why would anyone think it’s a good idea to strip rural schools of those same opportunities that other students get?” said Brad Cartwright, science teacher and member of the South Seneca TA. “That’s the biggest issue. It feels like discrimination. Our kids would be losing out on experiences that will determine what the rest of their lives are going to look like.”

Kristin Parry, a parent of three South Seneca students, said she grew up in a city school district, and when it came to her own children, she wanted something different. “I didn’t know anyone. I didn’t feel like I belonged anywhere, and I didn’t want that for my kids,” she said. At South Seneca, her children have thrived.

She said the decision to cut Foundation Aid makes her feel like rural communities aren’t entitled to nice things. “We are a poverty-stricken district, mostly farmers and small businesses. There are no big businesses to pick up the tab. There’s no big Micron company to go to and say, ‘Will you donate this much?’”

School board member and parent Shannon Brock nods. When Brock and her husband moved to the area in 2011 to buy the Silver Thread Winery, she said she was initially hesitant about the idea of sending her children to a rural school, because she worried that they wouldn’t have access to the same programs and academic rigor as students at bigger schools.

“What I found was that a small school offers so many opportunities,” Brock said. Her kids are involved in activities every night of the week, she said, but they also have benefitted from strong, personalized attention from their teachers. “It’s been such a pleasant surprise, but it really comes down to the state aid formula. Up to now, the formula really allowed rural schools to provide a largely equivalent educational opportunity and academic experience to what kids are getting at bigger schools, but if they make these cuts, where is no way we can maintain that.”

New York State Senator Tom O’Mara, who sat in on a roundtable discussion about the budget said he was shocked by the depth of the cuts. “We’re loud and clear that these cuts are unacceptable,” he said.

Superintendent Stephen Zielinski said that as a small district they make careful spending decisions. “At South Seneca most of our enrollment declines were 20 years ago.” Zielinski said the district downsized then, and the staff that remain wear many hats, with some even teaching multiple grades or subject areas, he said. Since then, their enrollment numbers have been stable. “We have really been thoughtful over the years to build budgets that allocate our human resources where they're needed,” Zielinski said.

“What I'm seeing across the state when I visited school districts like South Seneca is that folks have used the decline in enrollment to lower class sizes, to go to a co-teaching model, and to do what's best for kids,” said NYSUT President Melinda Person. “To have the rug ripped out from under them after they've done all the right things is really offensive.”

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers said the discussions represented a promising start. “What's really important here is the bipartisan nature of the fight for public schools,” said Weingarten. “You could hear it in this conversation of parents, teachers and business owners. This is a bipartisan push to create and maintain opportunity.”