Schools Question Proposal Finances

With several proposed changes to New York’s education system in the works, many are concerned about how they will be funded.

Many of the changes were addressed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in his State of the State Address recently and have left several area administrators with mixed emotions.

The state’s Education Reform Commission, which was created by Gov. Cuomo in April, has set forth many proposals to improve the quality of the education system. The proposals look good on paper but, until a state budget is presented, the fact of the matter is that both the governor and the commission have remained disconcertingly vague on their plans for funding the changes.

According to information on the governor’s website, New York state spends more money on its education system than any other state but ranks 39th in graduation rates throughout the nation. Only 73 percent of students graduate from high school and, of that percentage, only 37 percent are college ready.

The 25-member commission was created to recommend and study ways to improve the state’s education system by: strengthening teacher recruitment and performance, improving student achievement, increasing parent and family engagement, using technology in the classroom, helping high-need and low-wealth school communities, and managing educational and funding costs.

On Jan. 11, the commission released some of its preliminary recommendations to the governor. Nine recommendations have been made, including: longer school days for students; a full day of school for pre-kindergarten students from low-income neighborhoods; integrating more technology into classroom instruction with competitive grants, and expanding career and technical education programming to bridge the gap from high school to college.

Other proposals have included an emphasis on a community school model and the requirement that educators pass a “bar-type” exam in order to receive their teaching license.

A PRACTICAL PROBLEM

According to Deke Kathman, superintendent of Jamestown Public Schools, the proposals sound like a positive step, but the numbers behind them don’t add up.

“My concern about the commission report and the governor’s State of the State is that neither of them targeted nor emphasized the inadequate and inequitable state school aid formula,” he said. “While I appreciate and endorse the idea of extended learning time and the governor’s pledge to cover the entire cost of that, the obvious problem is that we don’t have adequate support for our basic programming – yet we are offered additional funds to add programming. It doesn’t add up at all.”

The amount of state aid that JPS receives has been frozen and then decreased from its 2009 level. According to Kathman, JPS relies on state aid for nearly 70 percent of its revenue budget.

“Having an ability to extend the school day or school year is something that we would want to take advantage of,” he said. “Also, getting more kids enrolled in full day pre-K programs is an advantage that we like. We know that the community school model that was promoted in the governor’s address works. In fact, (JPS) has been a leader in both the pre-K and community school realms, and we would be happy to share and expand efforts in those areas.”

Kathman added: “There’s not a thing that I don’t support, but it’s like adding icing to a cake that’s been eaten out from underneath. I hate embellishing our program offerings when we’re cutting (current) programs and teachers.”

Pete Morgante, superintendent of Pine Valley Central School, had similar thoughts on the proposals.

“A full-day universal pre-K program sounds like a great idea,” he said. “Currently, we have a universal pre-K program, but we have it in two half-day sessions. Our district is committed to the program, and the benefits that (the governor) talked about would be great here (at Pine Valley). The issue is that we couldn’t do that without extra money. We usually get about $100,000 in our universal pre-K grant, so I would be hopeful that this proposal would offer double that amount.”

Morgante continued: “My complaint is, why don’t we use the days that we currently have for testing? Most schools are spending a lot more time testing than instructing. If kids know that there will be testing in March or April, how much value will they place on the rest of their schooling? If (the state) could increase the school year, and have extra days to use efficiently for instruction, that would be great.”

For Chuck Leichner, superintendent of Forestville Central School, the shared services and community school model was the most appealing proposal.

“One thing that I liked was an emphasis on community schools and how they would be a real service provider for each community,” he said. “One thing that would really help us in Western New York would be for the state to help BOCES provide an increase in the regionalization of programming. It would be helpful for our local BOCES if funding was available for them to be the ones to coordinate the regional effort whereby we share services.”

“How they’re going to pay for these things is the next question,” Leichner added. “I think the commission certainly worked hard over a period of time to expand the state (education system) by making recommendations, but the ground between those recommendations and where the rubber meets the road is a significant difference.”