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February 8, 2013

Legislative forum puts focus on schools

By Mark Boshnack
The Daily Star

---- — Area legislators answered questions and talked with educators Thursday at the Catskill Regional Teacher Center ninth annual state legislative forum. It was held at Bugbee School auditorium. Those speaking and discussing issues facing area schools were Rep. Chris Gibson, R-Kinderhook; Assemblymen Pete Lopez, R-Schoharie; Cliff Crouch, R-Guilford; and Bill Magee, D-Nelson; and Duncan Davie, chief of staff for Sen. James Seward, R-Milford. More than 80 people were in attendance.

In introducing the panel, center director Mary Ann Luciano encouraged audience members to talk to the representatives. The discussion lasted for 1½ hours.

In response to a question about the fairness of high stakes testing that is part of the educational system, Gibson said it was done with good intentions, but is being done for the wrong reasons. Education should be about “providing equal opportunity for all students. We should change the way we fund schools,” he said.

Lopez said, “the current educational policy is disjointed, keeping stakeholders away from the table.” An effort has to made to find “how do we attack that and make sure the tests make sense.”

Crouch said before the state Board of Regents start a new initiative, “they should talk to people in the classroom.”

Another question focused on alternatives to funding schools, besides the property tax, that would provide more equitable funding for area schools.

Gibson said with cuts in state aid, and trouble in the economy, “we’re starting to see pressure” in area schools. “It’s past time we look at alternative approaches to addressing the inequality between relatively rich and poor schools,” he said. State and federal mandates have to be “rolled back” when they don’t move in the right direction, he said.

“It is a vestige of the past,” Lopez said. The 2 percent property tax cap was a way to address pressure on local taxpayers, but it doesn’t address the issue of how to provide the best education for students in all districts. He would like to “level the playing field” so everyone has an equal opportunity.

In response to a question about whether there is a plan to force local mergers, Davie said he does not feel that is something Albany will mandate. The Senate has talked about the possibility of regional high schools that will allow smaller schools to keep their identity. Nobody wants to end up with a situation that results in long bus rides for students, he said.

Asked about higher education, Magee said that area colleges are facing the same issues with funding that public schools are confronted with, because of tight state budgets.

After the session, Unatego Central School Superintendent Charles Molloy said all of the legislators have been supportive of local education. Such forums are important because they allow legislators to “hear from the people.” Something similar is being planned at his school later this month, he said.