Regional Budget Rally Crowds Columbia

More than 1,000 community members from all 47 school districts in the Capital Region came together on Jan. 31 to learn about the fiscal crisis facing their schools and find out what they can do to help.

Parents, students, educators, community and civic leaders, and state legislators – representing seven counties – filled Columbia High School’s auditorium for the rally titled “Your Public Schools in Fiscal Peril – Running Out of Time & Options”.

To view a video of the event click here.

Featured speaker Dr. Rick Timbs, Executive Director of the Statewide School Finance Consortium, pointed to three major causes of the fiscal crisis facing school districts: cuts in state aid through the Gap Elimination Adjustment, inequities in how the state distributes school aid to school districts, and a lack of meaningful relief from state mandates that drive up the cost of education.

Dr. Timbs, a retired educator, explained that the Gap Elimination Adjustment is a cut in state education aid that Gov. David Paterson proposed as a one-time fix to help the state’s budget deficit. But the state has used it the past three years, costing Capital Region schools a total of $305 million in state aid they otherwise would have received. It is included in Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s executive budget for a fourth straight year.

Dr. Timbs also pointed to the state aid formula New York uses to distribute school aid. Using the state’s own budget figures, Dr. Timbs illustrated how upstate school districts are not getting their fair share of state aid. As a result, upstate schools are faced with cutting programs they and their communities value while the cost of education is increasingly being shifted to local property taxes.

“The truth is all kids should be treated fairly, no matter where they live. Shouldn’t everyone have a fair shot at an education, no matter their zip code?” said Dr. Timbs. “The reality is that the Class of 2012 may have received the best education for the foreseeable future.”

To help illustrate the deep concerns of rural, suburban and urban school districts, superintendents from three area districts spoke about the impact the Gap Elimination Adjustment, inequity of school aid and lack of mandate relief have had on student opportunities.

Schodack CSD Superintendent Bob Horan explained how worried he and other educators from rural school districts are. He explained how his district has done everything the state has asked, including studying a merger with a neighboring school district, applying for state and private grants, cutting its budget three of the past four years and draining its reserves. But despite their efforts, the district still faces steep cuts with little else to eliminate but student opportunities.

“I’m incredibly proud of our students. Our graduation rate and attendance rate is in the 90s. When we ask our students to do one thing, they’ve always done three. They always go above and beyond,” said Mr. Horan. “We’ve always made them a promise that if they work hard, they’ll be rewarded. Now we’re at a point where I’m afraid they won’t be able to compete against students in other school districts as they apply for college.”

Guilderland CSD Superintendent of Schools Dr. Marie Wiles spoke on behalf of the many suburban districts represented at the event, dispelling the myth that suburban schools are not affected by the inadequacy of state aid. “From the outside looking in, it might appear that suburban schools have endless resources,” she said, “when in fact our resources are just as finite as those of our friends and colleagues in rural and urban school districts.”

Dr. Wiles noted that Guilderland has lost $12.3 million over the past three years due to the Gap Elimination Adjustment. As a result, the district has eliminated 125 full-time equivalent positions, leading to increased class sizes at all levels and fewer supports for faculty, staff and students who are struggling.

“Despite the rhetoric that suggests that state aid has been increased to school districts, the reality is that the resources needed to fund our programs are being whittled away,” said Dr. Wiles. “In the absence of adequate state aid and any meaningful relief from costly mandates, the financial and educational insolvency of our school districts is not a function of ‘if’ it will happen, but rather ‘when’ it will happen.”

Schenectady City Schools Superintendent Larry Spring described both the proud tradition of his district – from its innovative programs to its outstanding performing arts – as well as the challenges of an urban school district.

Schenectady has the 13th highest rate of childhood poverty in the nation, Mr. Spring explained. As a result, students often need the support of social workers and others to help them with the trauma they experience daily. Yet, due to a lack of sufficient state funding, the district is forced to cut services that those students need.

“Mental health services are not mandated but PE minutes are. Reading is not mandated but PE minutes are,” Mr. Spring said. “Schenectady is shorted $62 million a year. If we received the funding we are supposed to receive, we could wipe out these problems.”

East Greenbush CSD Superintendent Dr. Angela Nagle ended the evening by stressing to the audience that they have the power to help. She urged them to learn more and contact their state legislators to ensure they understood their concerns about the future of their schools. She also urged community members to attend a Feb. 11 event at Niskayuna High School at 7 p.m. where they can learn how to advocate for their schools.

“Although there are great challenges confronting us as we gather today, we can work together using the strength of our numbers to bring about change, and ensure our children an opportunity to achieve their dreams,” said Dr. Nagle.

Click here for a PDF of Dr. Timbs presentation.

Photos are available at http://goo.gl/xtE3u and the video shown at the end of the evening is available online at http://vimeo.com/58634622.

Media coverage of the event:
WAMC
News Channel 13
News Channel 10
News Channel 6
Times Union
Daily Gazette
Troy Record
Register-Star
The Daily Mail
Capital Region BOCES Communications Service

Follow the conversation on Twitter using our hashtag #NYSchoolsInPeril or by visiting Education Speaks at http://educationspeaks.org.