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January 11, 2013

School officials react to Cuomo's speech

By Mark Boshnack
The Daily Star

---- — Local school officials said Thursday that some of the proposals for education in Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s State of the State address have merit. However, without enough funding and mandate relief, they said their schools will have a difficult time maintaining the programs they already have.

In his Wednesday message, Cuomo talked about ways to transform and modernize education including extending the school day and year and providing universal full-day pre-kindergarten starting with the highest-needs students. Others programs discussed including raising the performance of teachers and principals. While some of the programs would be funded by the state, he did not discuss specific aid to schools. That is expected later this month when he proposes his budget that will have to be approved by the legislature.

Proposals such as extending the school day and having the state pick up the costs have merit, Unatego Central School business manager Nicholas Rosas said. But he was concerned where the money would be coming from, because he said the state has been cutting state aid for several years. To close a budget gap left by last year’s shortfall, the district had to reorganize its elementary schools. Rosas said this year, everything will be on the table for what he anticipates will be another difficult budget.

Instead of new proposals, Rosas said he’d like to see the state focusing on adjusting its aid formula to better reflect upstate needs, and providing the mandate relief that was promised when the state adopted a property tax cap.

This will be a problem in next year’s budget with the state mandating such things as all schools increasing payments to the teacher and employee retirement funds, he said, adding that in Unatego’s case, this would be an additional $350,000 that could require a 5 percent raise in the tax levy, barring any other funding.

Under the current situation, “we are looking at going into a holding pattern and sacrificing the quality of education for a generation of students who won’t have anything but the basics (if the situation does not change),” he said. If that is the case, he said they won’t be able to compete with downstate students in universities or job markets.

Morris Central School Superintendent Matthew Sheldon said that the idea of universal pre-kindergarten is very important but if the current economic issues facing schools continue, Morris could find itself in a dilemma. It would be able to maintain its prekindergarten but have to consider cutting kindergarten and electives, such as college-level classes.

He has no idea if the school will receive the 2 percent increase in state aid that has been suggested or how the aid will be distributed between upstate and downstate schools. Last year the state did a better job with that, but he has no idea if that will be repeated.

Delaware Academy Central School District at Delhi Superintendent Jason Thomson said a lot of Cuomo’s proposals make sense but “he’s not recognizing the fact that we are struggling to operate at the current level” of state funding. “Where is the money going to come from (for these additional programs)?

“We don’t disagree with his ideas but we need help to maintain what we have,” he said, adding that without meaningful mandate relief, the proposals won’t go anywhere.