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Group pushing politicians to fight for school funding; Meeting set Thursday

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CANTON — With the clock ticking toward a new state budget, advocates for north country public schools want answers from area politicians about their plans to get more dollars funneled to cash-strapped school districts, including some that face bankruptcy as soon as next school year.

Barbara B. Beekman, president of the Canton Central School Board of Education, said the issue is too important to be derailed by party politics in Albany.

She’s been in contact with the area’s state lawmakers, including Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell, D-Theresa, state Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, state Sen. Joseph A. Griffo, R-Rome, and Assemblyman Kenneth D. Blankenbush, R-Black River.

“This is a regional problem that transcends party affiliation,” Mrs. Beekman said. “I hope their allegiance is to us and not their political parties. When you come to an issue like this you have to do the right thing.”

Several state lawmakers have been asked to attend a Thursday meeting organized by School Equity Advocacy, a grass-roots organization made up of parents, school officials, students and others upset about the massive funding cuts to local schools over the past two years. The 5 p.m. session in the Canton High School auditorium, 99 State St., will be facilitated by Tedra L. Cobb, a Canton parent and former St. Lawrence County legislator.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is expected to deliver his state of the state address Jan. 9, which should provide some information about funding to public education in his 2013 budget.

Both Ms. Ritchie and Ms. Russell have crafted separate legislation that would earmark more money for north country schools.

Ms. Cobb said the group is unclear which of the two proposals is more beneficial, and that’s one of the issues that will be addressed at the meeting next week.

“We want them all together in the same place,” Ms. Cobb said. “We want to find out what the story is and what’s the plan.”

Starting Tuesday, two additional state lawmakers will represent parts of St. Lawrence County: state Sen. Elizabeth O’C. Little, R-Queensbury, and Assemblyman Marc W. Butler, R-Newport. They both have been asked to attend Thursday’s advocacy meeting.

The inequity that exists between what wealthy school districts offer students compared with what low-wealth districts provide continues to be the focus of the advocacy group’s campaign. For the past two years, the state’s gap elimination adjustments have hit poorer school districts harder than wealthier districts that have higher incomes and larger property tax bases.

“The equity piece is our major concern,” Ms. Cobb said. “There is one pie and that pie should be distributed in a way that’s fair. Right now, it’s not.”

Ms. Beekman said she understands the state isn’t flush with money, but doesn’t believe that argument justifies slashing funding to poor, rural school districts that rely on state funding to provide the “sound basic education” guaranteed in the state constitution.

“I get that we have no more money,” she said. “We’re not always asking for more money. We’re asking for it to be distributed equally.”

While many north country schools have been forced to eliminate teachers, staff and programs, 36 percent of the state’s school districts did not make any job cuts this school year.

While the advocacy group is based in Canton, Ms. Cobb said residents from throughout the region are welcome to attend and offer their input. Information is available on the group’s website: www.fairfundingforstudents.org.

In terms of funding cuts, Canton Central is one of the hardest hit districts in the state and could go bankrupt as soon as next school year unless more money comes through or property taxes increase substantially.

Over the past two years, the district has lost $3,500 per student, placing it among the top 5 percent of the hardest hit among the state’s 680 districts. Nearly 50 jobs have been eliminated, more than 20 percent of the district’s faculty and staff.

School Superintendent William A. Gregory has warned that a similar funding cut next year will result in 20 more jobs losses and “crippling cuts” to academic and extracurricular programs.

He identified 10 possible consequences, including class sizes in the 30s and 40s in all three schools, half-day kindergarten and downsizing of the prekindergarten program.

Elimination of athletics and all other extracurricular activities is another possibility, Mr. Gregory said.

The Canton Chamber of Commerce has joined a letter-writing campaign directed at the governor and other state legislators.

Ms. Beekman said it’s illogical for the state to grant the north country millions of dollars in state economic development funds at the same time local schools are struggling to stay afloat.

“It’s shortsighted to say we’re investing millions in the community while we’re dismantling the school district,” she said.

She said Gov. Cuomo can wield a great deal of power in determining how the state funding is doled out.

“I believe he could force the reallocation of the money. He could reallocate it in a fairer way,” Ms. Beekman said. “I’m not willing to accept that there’s nothing we can do.”

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