With the state Senate set to deliberate soon on its education budget, Sen. Seward, R- Milford, brought the chairman of Senate Education Committee to Oneonta on Tuesday to discuss the issues with school officials. Seward is also a member of the committee.
Seward held a forum with John Flanagan, R-East Northport, at Oneonta High School. It gave the committee chairman a chance to discuss the issues with about 50 school board members and superintendents. Earlier in the day, they toured Franklin Central School and met with local officials.
“We’re in a unique time,” Seward said, with the legislature on a fast track to approve a budget. The Senate deadline is March 11. After that, the conference committee will meet with its counterpart from the Assembly to reconcile a budget that Gov. Andrew Cuomo can sign. The deadline is April 1 but with Easter and Passover around that time, the effort is being stepped up to meet the deadline.
“The next few weeks are critical to the issue,” he said.
Flanagan said that although he comes from a district in Long Island, he is interested in the whole state.
“Children should have the same opportunities, no matter where they live,” he said. He credited Cuomo with working with legislators to address the deficit he inherited, which Flanagan said has required working together. For instance, he said, last year the Senate took much of the funds that Cuomo wanted for competitive grants and distributed it to high-need school districts in the final budget. Flanagan said he will look to take similar action in the upcoming plan.
Education was one of the few areas that saw an increase in Cuomo’s proposal, and that is appropriate, he said. It’s important to keep reducing the gap-elimination deduction each school faces as a way to offset the deficit, he said, and more work needs to be done on mandate relief. The Legislature, he said, needs to do a better job of paying for those mandates that are needed.
Milford Central School Superintendent Peter Livshin said that while Seward and area legislators have advocated for the area, the higher state standards and testing “take money that’s not there.”
If there is no relief, in the next three or four years, there will be schools that run out of money as a result of inadequate state aid, he said. With decreased funding and more mandates, Livshin said “the dark days are coming,” for area schools.
Flanagan said in traveling around the state, he has become an advocate for rural schools. He has become keenly aware of the problem of fiscal insolvency.
After the meeting, Livshin said Seward has always been helpful, and he found Flanagan bright and articulate.
“It’s good to know their depth of knowledge” and learn that Flanagan was opposed to unfunded mandates, Livshin said.
Laurens Central School Superintendent Romona Wenck thanked Flanagan for his work but told him said she was afraid of leaving the meeting without a clear idea of how to improve the situation. He told her that people have to advocate Cuomo’s office for a change. “The debate is about how we are going to allocate the money.”
After the meeting, Oneonta City School District Board of Education President Grace Larkin said the session was valuable.
“These senators are trying to do the job for us against huge odds,” she said.
However, she said she was concerned that in the next few years, as districts deal with reduced resources, “there didn’t seem to be a lot of options.”