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State school chief offers ideas to cope with cutbacks

State Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. on Friday told a gathering of school board members from Niagara Falls to Nassau County that everyone must bear responsibility for improving outcomes in New York's most struggling schools -- even in the face of fiscal cuts.

"We've got high schools with graduation rates around 30 percent," he said. "We have a moral responsibility to change the performance in those schools."

Many districts are experiencing a decline in enrollment, which causes a decline in revenue, he noted -- and districts across the state will have to contend with a tax cap when planning budgets.

But those challenges do not excuse schools from finding a way to provide a better education to children, he said.

"We need to dramatically rethink our approach and what we do," he said. "Not necessarily do more with less, but do different with less. As you do that work of reallocating resources, it must always be with an eye toward student achievement."

Schools should explore ways to use technology to better meet students' needs, he said. For instance, if a particular class can't be offered in a school, students might be able to access it through distance learning.

And, despite incentives for districts to merge or collaborate, those things are not happening enough, King said.

He addressed hundreds of people Friday morning at the New York State School Boards Association's annual convention at the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center.

In the afternoon, King was joined on a panel by Chancellor Merryl Tisch, Regent Robert M. Bennett, Deputy Secretary for Education David Wakelyn, Assistant Secretary for Education Katie Campos, and Florence Johnson, who is president of the state school boards association.

Board members voiced a host of concerns to the statewide leaders, including how to deal with shrinking revenues, how the state will adjust assessments for the new Common Core Standards, and how schools can cope with unfunded mandates and other obstacles.

A few board members voiced concerns about the strong influence that teachers, retired teachers and teachers' spouses exercise on school boards and to what extent they are able to affect negotiating labor contracts they may benefit from.

"Why should we allow teachers to teach in the classroom one week, then serve on the board the next week and negotiate contracts?" said Joanne Freeman, a board member for Hamilton Fulton Montgomery BOCES.

Others urged state leaders to find a more equitable way to distribute aid.

"I am not here asking for more money. I understand there is no money," said Joseph A. Rotella, superintendent of Onondaga Central Schools. "High-need, low-wealth districts are in a truly unsustainable situation."

Those on the panel offered no promises on what the next few months or years would hold, but they did -- prompted by a question from a moderator -- offer advice to school boards.

Bennett urged boards to provide principals with more autonomy regarding hiring and budget. Campos asked boards to set goals each year and make them known to the community, as a means to engage people in the district.

email: mpasciak@buffnews.com

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