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School advocates gearing up for Dec. 5 bus trip to Albany

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CANTON - Parents, students and others upset about state funding cuts to public education aren’t waiting to find out what the next state budget looks like.

This time around, they’re taking action before Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo releases his 2013 state budget.

Education advocates in St. Lawrence County are gearing up for a Dec. 5 bus trip to Albany to let politicians and education officials know they expect to see more state funding restored to poor, rural school districts that are struggling to survive.

They’ll be joining a statewide bus tour that begins that day in Buffalo and ends at the state Capitol. The lobbying event is pegged “Educate NY Now Express” and is being organized by the Alliance for Quality Education, an Albany-based lobbying organization.

“The governor’s budget comes out in January, but he’s working on it now,” said Chad M. Radock, the alliance’s deputy campaign manager. “We want to set the framework for the budget debate. We’re looking to shake things up, get in there early and headline the debate.”

Locally, a grassroots group known as School Equity Advocacy has been meeting regularly since last school year when several area districts were forced to cut teachers, staff, academic courses, sports and other programs because state aid revenue didn’t keep up with rising expenses.

Unless more state aid come through this year, officials from several area school districts expect to deplete their fund balances, leaving them on the brink of bankruptcy.

Canton Central School Superintendent William A. Gregory has warned that if the state imposes similar cuts this year, Canton will be financially and academically insolvent.

Over the past two years, the district has eliminated 42 faculty and staff positions.

“My intent is not to fear monger, but to raise awareness,” Mr. Gregory said, noting that Canton took the largest per-student funding cut in the region.

In February, three bus loads of students, parents and school officials headed to the state Capitol where they rallied with others from throughout the state and met with politicians.

They argued that budget cuts were hitting poor, rural school districts much harder than wealthier school districts. Rural areas lack the property tax base that generates revenue in more populated areas of the state.

Eventually, some north country school districts received additional bullet aid, but not enough to make a significant impact.

But advocates didn’t achieve their larger goal of getting the state to change the complicated formula it uses to calculate how much state aid each of the state’s 680 school districts gets.

Low-wealth districts argue that the wealth-ratio range used by the state doesn’t accurately reflect their poverty level which means they get shortchanged,

All but three of the 18 school districts in the St. Lawrence-Lewis Board of Educational Services region are classified as high needs. Three districts, including Canton, Potsdam Central and Colton-Pierrepont, are categorized as average needs.

However, Mr. Gregory said the state is using data from 2007-08 school year and if updated figures were being used, Canton would be in the high-needs category. That switch would mean almost $1 million more for the Canton district each year.

“It makes a big difference what side of the line you’re on,” Mr. Gregory said. “Why are we using five-year-old data? I have not gotten that answer from anyone.”

He said districts will continue to suffer unless the state does away with the gap elimination adjustment that was imposed three years ago to help the state reduce its $10 billion deficit.

Mr. Radock said his group is pushing the state to reinstate the foundation aid formula that was previously used to allocate education funding.

Earlier this year, Gov. Cuomo established an Education Reform Commission that was tasked with examining the structure and operation of the state’s education system. The group has traveled throughout the state gathering input. The findings are expected to be released in early December.

For more information about the bus tour or advocacy efforts, contact Tedra L. Cobb, facilitator for the School Equity Advocacy. Ms. Cobb, a Canton Central parent and former St. Lawrence County legislator, can be reached at tedracobb@gmail.com or 854-2125.

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