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School officials ask for more money at legislative breakfast

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Area school superintendents want to see more state aid from Albany, but legislators couldn’t promise it at the Jefferson-Lewis School Boards Association’s legislative breakfast on Friday.

Four legislators and a legislator’s representative listened to and addressed concerns of superintendents who traveled from all corners of Jefferson and Lewis counties to the forum at Case Middle School.

Since some districts lack funding to continue extracurricular activities, superintendents were puzzled by why Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo proposed even more unfunded mandates, such as longer or additional school days and full-day prekindergarten, during his State of the State speech Wednesday.

“If the money is so tight, where is the governor finding more money to fund the extra days of the year?” asked Thousand Islands Central School District Superintendent Frank C. House.

Lyme Central School District Superintendent Karen M. Donahue said she was concerned about her district’s upcoming budget season.

“We’re too rich to be poor and too poor to be rich,” she said.

More state aid is sent to districts that have low property wealth. Missing the mark for “poor district” means the district cannot qualify for bullet aid or many grants.

“That’s one of the issues we need to address,” said Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell, D-Theresa. “We can do far more to drive school aid based on those situations.”

The bill Mrs. Russell reintroduced from 2011 would increase free and reduced-price lunches for districts like Lyme, Sackets Harbor, Thousand Islands, LaFargeville and Alexandria central, which may have a wealthy base in the summer but not during the remainder of the year, she said.

While state Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, introduced a similar bill, Mrs. Russell’s measure includes the state’s five biggest city school districts. Mrs. Russell previously had said that besides funneling more money to poor rural schools, her plan would bring more dollars to poor urban districts.

“My bill targets changes of the school-aid formula based on a real district’s numbers and skews it toward the poorest of districts and the neediest students,” Mrs. Russell said.

However, she said, wealthier school districts often are unwilling to settle for less state aid so that poorer districts can receive more.

“In Albany, there can never be any losers, which is frustrating, because in life, there are a lot of losers,” Mrs. Russell said.

Assemblyman Kenneth D. Blankenbush, R-Black River, agreed that trying to pass bills that would negatively affect wealthier downstate districts is difficult.

“It’s a balancing act to get those votes,” Mr. Blankenbush said.

Another provision of the bill Mrs. Russell reintroduced would limit districts to only 85 percent of the aid they received the previous year.

Less aid means districts have to cut programs and classes, possibly leading to schools not being able to offer the courses necessary to graduate. Mrs. Ritchie said she already spoke to districts that are on the verge of “academic insolvency.” The after-school programs and sports that are being cut, she said, are what keep students focused and out of trouble.

“In the north country, schools are our community,” Mrs. Ritchie said. “They’re the hub of the community.”

Watertown City School District Board of Education Vice President Cynthia H. Bufalini said that in the north country, fine arts courses are among the first to be cut. Meanwhile, she said, schools on Long Island have jazz band in addition to regular band and orchestra classes.

“For some kids, their core subject is the arts,” Mrs. Bufalini said. “There are so many kids that this is what would get them through, and this is what would give them a future. Art, to me, is the art of academia, and it’s always the first thing to go.”

Mrs. Russell urged schools to find any way they can to hold on to their programs.

“If anyone can leave today with one thing: Don’t wait for the state to do something,” she said. “Do it. We’ll be here to make it happen.”

Beaver River Central School District Superintendent Leueen Smithling said her district does not have prekindergarten at all, and asked how full-day pre-K would affect her district.

Mrs. Russell said the proposal probably will affect only schools that already have prekindergarten.

“I’d like to see more kids offered the two-and-a-half-hour pre-K before a small number of kids are offered the full-day pre-K,” Mrs. Russell said.

Indian River Central School District Board of Education member Donald L. Brumfield said a number of people are dissatisfied with state legislators. He proposed having the legislators take a budget cut.

The criticism put the lawmakers on the defensive.

“You made some good points, but the one thing about the job that bothers me is that people think it’s a part-time job,” Mrs. Ritchie said. “It’s a round-the-clock job.”

Mr. Blankenbush said he was paying $900 to replace year-old tires because he had traveled so much to speak with superintendents and businesses throughout his district.

“You’re not going to get away with saying those comments here,” Mr. Blankenbush said to Mr. Brumfield. “How much do we get reimbursed for that?”

Mrs. Russell was quick to answer. “Zippo,” she said.

Assemblyman Marc W. Butler, R-Newport, said his perspective comes from his wife, Susan, who is principal at Dolgeville Elementary. He said schools are responsible for teaching subjects that parents previously taught their children, such as health, nutrition and sex education.

“I think we’re dealing with more than dollars and cents,” Mr. Butler said. “I think we’re dealing with a change in the mind-sets of people.”

Mr. Blankenbush urged superintendents to contact him about pressing issues.

“Our doors are always open,” he said.

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