Nearly every Capital District state legislator sat and listened to the pleads of educators, students and school officials to do more than ease off funding cuts to school district and return aid promised several years ago.
The regional forum, “NY Schools Still in Fiscal Peril: Our Kids Can’t Wait Another Year,” drew around 1,000 people to South Colonie High School on Thursday, Jan. 30, with a gym opened as an overflow room to broadcast it. The event followed up on a similar call to action last year at Columbia High School rallying to end the Gap Elimination Adjustment, commonly known as the GEA, and return prior funding held back.
The 47 school districts across the Capital District, representing more than 112,000 students, have lost $387 million in state aid through the Gap Elimination Adjustment over the past four years. Panelists at the event, consisting of superintendents, school board members, teachers and students, outlined how cuts have affected programming and what opportunities have been, or could be, lost.
South Colonie Central School District Superintendent Jonathan Buhner said there are two “very simple” choices facing public education. State lawmakers can return around $8.5 billion withheld through the GEA for “other state purposes,” or remain on the same “destructive path.”
Buhner said continuing the GEA is not an acceptable choice.
“I, personally, will not stand by to witness the loss of a generation’s potential,” Buhner said. “Most would agree the answer to the state’s financial dilemma is not to permanently defund our public schools, but rather invest appropriately and expect excellence.”
Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposed 2014 state budget holds more than an $800 million increase in state aid to schools, but district officials criticize the boost as too small and said funds are not distributed equitably. Most school districts are receiving less state aid than what was received five years ago, alongside demands imposed through the state-mandated tax levy cap.
Pegeen Jensen, an elementary reading teacher at South Colonie, said her classroom used to have a full-time monitor, and the building used to have a half-time social worker.
“I have to be everything to everyone,” Jensen said, receiving applause. “At the end of the day, most of the time I really don’t feel like I am anything to anyone.”
Richard Timbs, executive director of the Statewide School Finance Consortium, said staff cuts are down 10 percent while enrollment statewide has dropped 3 percent.
Lynn Macan, superintendent of Cobleskill-Richmondville Central School District, said many families with higher incomes are placing their children in private schools in reaction to public education cuts.
“To me, strong schools are an essential element of strong communities,” Macan said. “As finance erodes in our schools and what we’re able to offer to children … the quality of the school system is reduced, and it’s getting to be a bigger and bigger hole that seems as though we can’t get out of.”
Educators also balked at the idea of universal pre-kindergarten when kindergarten itself is not yet mandated and schools are struggling to fund existing programming.
“Nobody would argue that pre-K is not a great opportunity,” Macan said. “The problem as I see it is we are pitting K-12 education in opposition against pre-K education.”
Zilpa Oduor, a senior at Albany City School District, said advanced placement courses and other program offerings have allowed her to gain the confidence needed to attend college. Without the “proper programs,” she said she might not even be thinking of attending college.
“It would be a pity for the generations after me … if many other programs are cut,” Oduor said. “We, the young people, are the future of tomorrow. … You have to make sure that me and the people that are coming after me have that opportunity.”
Robert Horan, superintendent of Schodack Central School District, said students have been instilled to “always go above and beyond” and challenge themselves, but programming cuts are hindering kids from achieving that goal.
“They always come to me and say, ‘Mr. Horan, how can we challenge ourselves when we lack the programs to do so,’” he said. “It’s no longer just the small, poor or urban schools … it is even our large schools that are reducing opportunities for students after five years of the GEA.”
Attendees were urged to share their concerns about school funding with state legislators and the governor, and with state lawmakers in attendance meeting with people over cookies and water.
“Always remember that in this state and in this country, large numbers of people still have the power to implement change,” Buhner said.