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Call for more school funding uniting groups from teachers to superintendents

Teachers are picketing outside schools. Superintendents went to Albany this week. Hundreds protested at the capitol on Wednesday, and a series of rallies is expected to pack school gyms and auditoriums from West Seneca to Lake Shore during the next few weeks.

What’s fueling the fire? This time, it’s state funding.

At a time when new learning standards, teacher evaluations and state tests are roiling the world of public education, one issue has united teachers, superintendents, school board members and parents as the state budget deadline draws near – money.

All but four school districts in Erie and Niagara counties received less state aid for programs this school year than they did six years ago. Districts have cut everything from teachers to science kits as expenses continue to rise and enrollment drops.

Five years ago, faced with a state budget crisis and a state deficit, state lawmakers started clawing back promised school funding to help fill the gap. Although they’ve increased state aid to schools in the years since, the funding has not bounced back for many districts. What has angered school leaders and teachers is that state lawmakers have continued each year to withhold some state aid from schools in the name of eliminating a budget gap that no longer exists.

“It’s really strangling us here,” said Daniel Pacos, assistant superintendent of administration and finance at Lake Shore Central School. His district calculates it has lost $20.8 million in state aid during the last five years under the state’s scorned Gap Elimination Adjustment, a funding mechanism used to withhold some state aid from school districts. Coupled with a tax cap, increasing expenses and declining enrollment, Lake Shore has cut 50 positions in five years from its $54 million budget.

Angst in public schools today isn’t just about money. New Common Core Learning Standards, state standardized tests, charter schools, teacher evaluations and other efforts to measure how schools are performing have placed great stress on the state’s public school system. Those efforts have come at the very time school leaders have been faced with tough financial decisions about how to pay for school programs.

School board members and superintendents had hoped this would be the year the state would stop withholding aid for schools. Instead, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo tied increases in education aid directly to a series of controversial education reforms that include reducing local control over teacher evaluations and increasing the number of charter schools.

The political strategy has angered everyone from school board presidents to the leaders of teachers unions.

“My message to the governor as a school leader would be, if you want legislative reforms, you have to take care of that process in the normal democratic manner outside of your normal obligation to fund schools,” said Geoffrey Hicks, superintendent of Clarence Central School District, where 113 positions have been eliminated during the last five years.

In the weeks since Cuomo unveiled his budget, education groups across the state have organized campaigns to call for more school funding and to push back against the idea that state money for schools should be tied to Cuomo’s education reforms. They’re ramping up those public events as the state’s April 1 budget deadline approaches.

Those efforts have included:

• The Erie County Association of School Boards last month held a training session for its members to learn how to advocate for more school funding and for the end of the Gap Elimination Adjustment. School board members and other community leaders have planned a rally at 7 p.m. Thursday at West Seneca East Middle School.

• The statewide teachers union, New York State United Teachers, has made school funding a central part of a public campaign against Cuomo’s education agenda. The union is paying for television ads and has put up billboards across the state, including on the Kensington Expressway, targeting Cuomo for his proposal to increase the use of standardized test scores in teacher evaluations

• Alliance for Quality Education, a public school advocacy group, held a rally in Albany on Wednesday to call for more school funding. Hundreds of educators, parents and students marched through the streets to the state capitol building to highlight the organization’s call for increased public school funding. Like the teachers union, the organization opposes several of Cuomo’s proposals, including his initiative to make standardized tests count for 50 percent of a teachers evaluation.

• Locally, teachers and community leaders have organized rallies in schools across the region to call for more state funding for schools and to push back against the governor’s proposal to tie state aid increases to his education initiatives. Teachers rallied at Hamburg High School on Wednesday. School leaders, teachers and community members will gather at 4 p.m. Friday at East Aurora Middle School to highlight cuts to athletics, music, art and other programs. In Lake Shore, teachers, school leaders and legislators plan to attend a rally at Lake Shore Middle School on March 20.

While everything from the Common Core to teacher evaluations has prompted public protests during the last year, it is funding for public schools that has united organizations in recent weeks. Some groups, especially school administrators, are particularly irked that Cuomo has refused to even give detailed calculations of what school districts would get from the state under his budget proposal.

“In my opinion, we’re unified across the board that the things that are being promoted in the governor’s agenda are not in the best interest of our students,” said Joseph Cantafio, president of the West Seneca Teachers Association.

Cuomo has railed against the idea that the root of the problems in public education is money. His office points to the fact that the state spends almost twice as much per student as the national average and that spending on public education in New York has increased from $28 billion to $58 billion in 15 years.

“The education industry’s cry that more money will solve the problem is false,” Cuomo said as he unveiled his budget proposal in January. “Money without reform only grows the bureaucracy. It does not improve performance.”

Legislators in the Assembly and State Senate, meanwhile, have issued their own budget proposals that attempt to provide more money for schools.

Local school leaders, particularly in suburban districts that have traditionally performed well in academic measures, bristle at the broad brush Cuomo has painted of failing schools. They point to the Gap Elimination Adjustment as one of many financial factors that have forced school districts to cut everything from Advanced Placement courses to modified sports teams in recent years.

At Cheektowaga Central, where the district has seen an increase in the number of students with special needs, the number of students in study halls has grown because it cannot offer as many enrichment courses as in years past, said Superintendent Dennis Kane. Technical drawing, robotics and photography are a few of the electives the district has cut. Enrollment declines, larger class sizes and savings have also helped offset lost state aid.

Other districts have taken similar measures.

“It hasn’t allowed us to grow instructionally. It’s tough to allow people to take on new ideas and run with new ideas and challenges when you don’t have the funds to do it,” said Pacos, the Lake Shore assistant superintendent. “You can’t raise the bar when you’re forced to do the same old same old.”

email: djgee@buffnews