WELLS BRIDGE -- More than 600 people attended a forum Thursday at Unatego High School at which three area legislators had a chance to hear concerns about cuts to state education aid.
The session was sponsored by Unatego United, an advocacy group formed last year by district residents concerned about funding issues that affect most area schools. The problems discussed at the meeting stem from the budget presented by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, which cuts direct aid to schools in an effort to close the state's budget deficit.
There were representatives from other area schools who came to the session with state Sen. James Seward, R-Milford; Assemblyman Pete Lopez, R-Schoharie; and Assemblyman Clifford Crouch, R-Guilford. Each legislator expressed sympathy for what they heard and pledged to try to address the issues. This includes using $250 million Cuomo set aside for competitive grants to restore some of the cuts.
"I'm returning to the Capitol on Monday to press our case that our backs are against the wall in giving our kids the education they need and deserve," Seward said.
The Cuomo budget calls for a cut of state aid to Unatego of more than $1 million. The legislature still has to weigh in on the proposal before a budget is finalized. The deadline is April 1.
Unatego Superintendent Charles Molloy said that after several years of cutting at the district when state aid was frozen or cut, there is no "fat" left to trim from the school's budget. Upstate rural schools don't have the tax base to raise revenue that some downstate districts do. They rely on state aid to give area students the same opportunities, but that hasn't been working during these times.
The state cuts "cripple our fine schools" and could lead to cuts in program, Molloy said. Cuts have already been made to teachers, administration and staff, he said. Without the restoration, "next year we will operate with a deficit. You simply must take action to prevent this."
Among the programs that could be cut are kindergarten, advanced placement classes, cafeteria services, extracurricular activities. The district had previously discussed reconfiguring its buildings, as opposed to closing one of two elementary schools, as a means of savings.
Molloy said he was hopeful the legislators will convince Cuomo and their fellow lawmakers "to provide a sound basic education for all, regardless of socioeconomic status or your zip code."
Four juniors talked about their concerns. They included Hunter Howard, who talked about the "lost opportunities" for him and others if advanced placement classes are cut.
"Please do whatever your power will allow to reverse this trend and allow us not only to survive, but thrive," he said.
"Be my advocates," Casey Manzanero said. "Without your support, my future is diminished." Also speaking were Kayla Talbot and Patricia Danforth.
Seward spoke of his efforts to address the problem. He has always fought for adequately funding education, he said, adding: "It's a great investment in our future."
The economic downturn of 2008 exposed the inequities in the way the school funding is divided. He is working with other senators for a fairer distribution. Their first priority is adding back the $250 million. In addition, more has to be done on mandate relief. His place on the education subcommittee will help him address issues he heard at the meeting.
Crouch said he will continue to ask Cuomo for the leadership to change the share for rural schools. This is the first time he can recall that school districts are talking about possible bankruptcy.
"I am pledging to you we will do all we can to right this disparity." Crouch said.
"We find ourselves fighting for a shrinking piece of the pie in Albany," Lopez said. "We are not just here for the night, We are here as your partners," in finding solutions.
Unatego United co-chairman Florian Reyda said with the turnout Thursday, the group should be called Unatego United and Friends. He invited people from all districts to return to the school in two weeks to continue the effort.