By Tim Wolcott
Weather was on our side as blue skies and mild temperatures bathed the crowd of stomping, chanting Elmira Heights School District families, staff and friends on March 9, 2013. The stadium P.A. system beat out familiar rhythms between questions from an announcer that asked why some school districts must be forced to cut staff and programs while others are exempted. I felt a little out of place, having come from Johnson City, NY an hour away, but very proud to be among citizen activists who have suffered too long in silence. I was here as an educator in solidarity with a community under immense pressure by forces that are beyond their direct control.
The “Albany, Can You Hear Us? March & Rally” at Thomas A. Edison High School was created and led by Mary Beth Fiore, Superintendent of Elmira Heights Schools. Her considerable courage was more than matched by the support of community members and school personnel. Buttons were created and placards designed to get the message out – “Say Yes! to Equitable Funding for All Schools”.
As waves of over 750 chanting voices filled the football stadium (I overheard a person proudly say, “There’s more people here today than we get for football games!”) and meandered to the high school auditorium, I wondered what the negation sign over “G.E.A” on signs and banners meant. G.E.A. turned out to be the last straw that precipitated today’s event.
G.E.A. stands for Gap Elimination Assessment. It is an amount that is deducted from state aid that was previously appropriated to school districts. Governor Patterson initiated the G.E.A. in the 2010-11 budget as a way to close a $10 billion deficit brought on by the 2008 Financial Collapse. It was supposed to be a one-time requirement, but that hasn’t been the case. Since its inception in 2010, Elmira Heights has suffered cuts in aid totaling nearly $5 million while at the same time being required by the state to pay for mandated new staff evaluation procedures that add an additional $50,000 per year in costs. Other mandated costs in education were to be reduced simultaneously with the implementation of the G.E.A., but that didn’t occur.
The fundamental problem is that the formula that calculates what each district receives from the state is flawed. It maintains the advantages of wealthy districts. School funding should come from state and/or federal income taxes, not property taxes that perpetuate disadvantages to the less affluent local districts.
Elmira Heights isn’t alone in this dilemma. Schools in Elmira Heights’ B.O.C.E.S. district have lost over 600 professional positions since the G.E.A. cuts began just three years ago. Staff reductions included math, science, English and social studies teachers as well as music, art, language and sports programs. Ironically, these staff cuts have occurred even as the NY State Education Department trumpets its “college and career-ready” mandates. While the staff and program cuts continue, local taxpayers are still seeing their property taxes rise.
Salt was rubbed into the wound when it was communicated to the public that this year the school districts are getting “more” money. In fact, the additional aid is based on the already reduced (G.E.A. affected) amount. Consequently, Elmira Heights C.S. is allocated actually less aid than what it received in 2007. All the while, state mandate costs have continued to increase. One button says it all: given the current state increase in aid, it will take Elmira Heights 48 years to recoup the losses due to the G.E.A.
Increasing school district costs are not only due to G.E.A. “take backs” and increasing state mandates. The main drivers are increasing staff pension costs and health insurance premiums. However, pensions have helped families remain secure while simultaneously giving stability to the volatile national economy, and thus should be preserved. In contrast, health insurance premiums are bankrupting individuals and communities while making it difficult for American businesses to be competitive internationally. However, the highly profitable corporations that determine our health insurance premiums seem immune to regulation by our elected representatives. We need to hold our politicians accountable for this.
After the crowd marched to the school auditorium, Superintendent Fiore explained why the rally was organized and what was needed to be done still (see Toolkit below). Even when the chanting had stopped reverberating and people began to exit the school, the atmosphere continued to resonate with renewed optimism, solidarity and community awareness. The power of a resilient, unified community taking action to help one another and their schools is a joy to behold.
For a “Advocacy Toolkit” that offers resources to help your school district fight back click on http://www.heightsschools.com/uploadeddocs/advocacytoolkit.pdf