December 2012 Issue
November 20, 2012

When budgets are cut, the ones we serve suffer

Author: Sylvia Saunders
Source: NYSUT United
Caption: Deb Collier, Yonkers Federation of Teachers member, participates in a rally in Yonkers to call attention to severe cuts and demand the return of guidance counselors, school psychologists and social workers to the city school district.

Call it a sad sign of the times.

In Yonkers, where students have lost 75 percent of their basic support services, a handwritten poster at a recent rally said it all: "Ratio of guidance counselors to students: 1 to 1,730."

That's the grim reality in a district where there are only 15 guidance counselors, eight social workers and 17 psychologists for more than 26,000 students.

"The poorest districts are falling further into levels of educational malfeasance," said Yonkers Federation of Teachers President Pat Puleo.

"We can no longer say we are offering a sound, basic education, by any definition," added Kelly Chiarella, director of the Westchester East Putnam Region PTA.

Around the state, at regional Educate NY Now! events and in testimony before the New NY Education Reform Commission, local union leaders and other advocates are offering a sobering portrait of what's really happening in schools.

The combination of the newly imposed cap on state aid and the cap on local funding through property taxes is clearly taking its toll.

Class sizes are ballooning and schools large and small have been forced to cut AP courses, tutoring, career and technical education, arts, music, sports, foreign languages, kindergarten, pre-kindergarten and more. Rural districts are literally running out of money.

State funding for schools is now below what it was four years ago and this does not even account for inflation. Ten years ago the state covered almost 50 percent of the costs of educating students. Now the state covers only 40 percent.

The state has shortchanged higher education, too. Since 2008, state funding for SUNY and CUNY has been cut by more than $1.7 billion.

While NYSUT leaders presented the statewide picture at the Education Reform Commission's hearing on Long Island this fall, local union leaders testified at many of the commission's 11 regional hearings between July and October. They represented a wide range of districts — rural, urban and suburban — but shared a common bond: Their students are all suffering from a lack of state support.

In western New York, Tonawanda Education Association President Ron Sesnie said his low-wealth district's state aid has been reduced from $18.3 million in 2009-10 to $15.5 million in 2012-13 — a 15 percent reduction over three years.

"We are not a wealthy community," Sesnie said, noting it is not realistic for his high-tax district to ask local taxpayers to make up the difference. The district has taken significant steps to balance the budget — staff layoffs, program cuts, the closing of one elementary school and now potentially closing another.

"We've lost 17 percent of instructional staff in the past three years," he said. "Most students in the main population are being channeled into a ‘cookie-cutter' educational program without the variety of optional courses."

Martha Oldfield, president of the Frankfort-Schuyler TA, said her low-wealth, high-poverty, high-tax community has tried to fill the void. The district's local property tax levy has increased by 15 percent in the last three years. After the district closed one of two elementary schools in 2011, the combined elementary school is bursting at the seams; students are spending a long time on buses. "Multiple special education programs are being run in the same classroom and teachers don't even have room to store their supplies within their classrooms," she said.

She said the rural district has attempted to offer students electives through distance learning, but this is not the solution. "Our students drop the classes at an alarming rate because of the lack of access to a classroom teacher."

"We have cut everywhere possible, reduced central administration and cut staff. Now where do we go?" asked Donna Ramundo, president of the Nyack TA. "We have reached a point where the problem cannot be solved at the local level."

Aside from the state aid cuts and property tax cap, union leaders told the commission districts are facing new expenses associated with implementing new APPR regulations, phasing in common core curriculum and the cost of third-party tests.

"These initiatives will require a significant investment in professional development for staff at a time when our district has had to reduce expenses in this area," said Jackie Derouchie, president of the Lyncourt TA outside Syracuse. "The state needs to step up and provide this funding."

Mary Lou Megarr, president of the Plattsburgh TA, offered a personal note, explaining how her son graduated from her district a decade ago. "He was afforded a wonderful, well-rounded education, which included a full range of elective and AP courses, as well as interscholastic athletics and a broad spectrum of choices in visual arts and music ... Now my daughter is entering our middle school in the same district. Enrichment opportunities as well as many visual arts and music choices are compromised. Doesn't she deserve the same quality education and opportunities as her brother? Don't your children and grandchildren deserve better than what we are offering at the present time?"

The Education Commission is slated to issue recommendations by early December, with an eye toward helping the governor formulate his 2013-14 budget plan that will be unveiled in January. With a new legislative session about to begin, NYSUT is making it clear that the state must provide the resources needed to implement education reforms and give students the support they need. State officials need to hear how the state's policies are hurting our students. The Educate NY Now! coalition, which includes NYSUT, is planning a statewide day of action Dec. 5 that will bring busloads of activists to Albany.