State Aid for Sag Harbor Uncertain as Governor Cuomo Holds Education Budget Hostage

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By Tessa Raebeck

With Governor Andrew Cuomo holding school aid in limbo in hopes of forcing the New York State Legislature to adopt his educational reforms, next year’s school budgets—and educational mandates—remain a mystery to school boards and administrative teams trying to prepare for the 2015-16 school year.

“What the governor is doing is he wants to push his reform package,” Tommy John Schiavoni, legislative liaison to the Sag Harbor Board of Education, said at Tuesday’s meeting.

In January’s State of the State address, Governor Cuomo agreed to grant an additional $1.1 billion, or 4.8 percent, in state funding to New York’s schools if and only if the legislature passes his reforms. If the legislature—which, divided between a Democratic-controlled Assembly and Republican-controlled Senate, is often at a standstill—fails to do so, the governor threatened to limit that increase to 1.7 percent. In the meantime, those crafting school budgets must play a guessing game without direct information on how much state aid they’ll receive.

“He has publicly said that if he doesn’t get it, they’re going to hold back money from education,” Mr. Schiavoni said of the governor.

The reform package proposed by the governor includes teacher evaluations with 50 percent based on standardized tests, a proposal rebuked by the state’s teachers unions.

“I think that is certainly something that will affect us [and the annual Professional Performance Review] we’ve developed in Sag Harbor,” said Mr. Schiavoni.

Governor Cuomo is also requesting a five-year tenure plan to “make it easier to discipline teachers,” Mr. Schiavoni said. If enacted, the governor’s plan would make it easier for teachers to be fired and harder for them to be granted tenure.

Other reforms the governor is compelling the legislature to adopt include: raising the number of charter schools in the state by 100 and requiring those schools to accept less advantaged and lower-scoring students; starting a pilot pre-K program for 3-year-olds; sending specialists into schools that have been designated as “failing” for three years; and creating an education tax credit for private, public and charter school donations.

The governor’s office will not release the final financial numbers until the budget has passed, which could be as late as April 1. School districts, in turn, must tell the state comptroller’s office whether they plan to pierce the state tax cap, enacted in 2011, by March 1, at which point they could be missing information vital to understanding next year’s finances.

In other school board news, Superintendent Katy Graves said the district has accepted the i-Tri program, a self-empowerment group in which middle school girls focus on building confidence, mental health and physical stamina over six months, culminating with the girls racing in a triathlon in July.

The program was expected to be voted on by the board on Tuesday, but did not end up requiring a vote because there are no longer any transportation costs associated with it.

Theresa Roden, director and founder of i-tri, “has such a wealth of volunteers that are willing to come from the community into the school building that it’s become a facilities use agreement,” Ms. Graves said.

There are no costs for the district, but the program will use Pierson’s facilities and the administrative team, who will help i-tri with the selection process, which favors girls who are not involved in interscholastic sports.

Pierson Middle School Vice Principal Brittany Miaritis said the school is dispensing a survey for i-tri this week to “figure out girl selection for the program.”

The board’s next meeting is Monday, February 23, in the Pierson library. A budget workshop will be held at 6 p.m. followed by the regular meeting at 7:30 p.m.

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