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Rallies push back on Cuomo’s attempt to tie school aid to education agenda

Teachers, School Board members and administrators plan to ramp up their voices during the next month to air their displeasure with a decision by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to tie increases in school aid to his controversial education agenda.

A rally Thursday night in West Seneca organized by teachers from districts in Erie and Niagara counties is the first in a series of events planned for the next month aimed at pushing back against Cuomo’s attempts to use school funding as a bargaining chip for changes to teacher evaluations and other education reforms.

“I’ve never seen such widespread sharing of frustration of so many different constituent groups,” said Joseph Cantafio, president of the West Seneca Teachers Association and one of the organizers of the rally in West Seneca.

The events include:

• Organizers expect hundreds of teachers and other community members to attend a rally at 6 p.m. Thursday at West Seneca West High School that is organized by the New York State United Teachers and the Alliance for Quality Education. The rally will kick off a series of teacher pickets designed to draw attention to their concern over Cuomo’s proposals.

• Several teachers unions in Cattaraugus and Allegany counties will hold a public forum at 7 p.m. Thursday at Olean High School to highlight what they have described as the “disastrous consequences” of Cuomo’s proposals on education.

• Members of the Erie County Association of School Boards will host a rally at 7 p.m. March 12 at West Seneca East Middle School to draw attention to school funding formulas that have not kept up with promised state aid levels.

School board members and administrators have for years cried out about a state budget mechanism known as the Gap Elimination Adjustment that has been used to take back promised state aid during the last five years since a state budget crisis in 2010.

While school leaders have called on state lawmakers to restore previous state aid amounts, Cuomo did not address that in his budget proposal. Instead, he proposed giving schools a 4.8 percent increase in state aid only if lawmakers approve a series of reforms, including expanding charter schools, allowing for the outside takeover of failing schools, making it tougher for teachers to get tenure and reducing local control over teacher evaluations.

“Schools have been underfunded significantly over the last five years,” said Jane Burzynski, the association’s executive director. “So the governor’s proposal to tie the aid now to a series of his own ideas about reform raises a great deal of concern.”

Area school leaders have also lashed out at a decision by the governor to withhold detailed information about how his state budget proposals would affect individual school districts. For decades, the state has released calculations that project how much individual school districts would get under a governor’s proposal. Those estimates are used by local districts to craft their own budget proposals to send to voters in May.

This year, however, Cuomo has said he will not produce that information until state lawmakers strike a budget deal.

Without that information, many districts have begun to prepare for getting no increase in state aid next year – a scenario that could mean cutting staff or student programs.

“This is leaving the schools in a terrible spot, because if we aren’t going to get any increase in state aid, every single school district will have to reduce staff, reduce student activities and reduce educational programs,” said Vincent Coppola, interim superintendent of Hamburg Central School District.