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North country school advocates urged to lobby governor

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CANTON — Unless Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and the state Legislature agree to change the state aid formula in the 2013 budget, there’s little chance north country public schools will get significantly more money, the area’s state politicians warned Thursday.

About 100 people turned out at the Canton High School auditorium on a snowy evening to find out what’s happening at the state level regarding funding for poor, rural school districts that are struggling to stay financially afloat.

They were urged to direct lobbying efforts at Gov. Cuomo, who is scheduled to release his 2013 state budget in about two weeks.

“Call him, email him, write him,” said Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell, D-Theresa. “Now is a critical time.”

Those at the meeting were urged to participate in a phone drive to the governor’s office that’s scheduled for today.

Once the governor’s budget is adopted by the state Legislature, there will be little chance of getting the state aid formula changed, Mrs. Russell said,

Based on his past practices, Gov. Cuomo will likely veto any legislation that increases the adopted state budget, Mrs. Russell said, noting that the new spending plan is supposed to be adopted by April 1.

During the 90-minute forum, submitted questions were answered by Mrs. Russell, state Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, and Assemblyman Marc W. Butler, R-Newport. The session was organized by School Equity Advocacy, a grassroots organization of parents, students and school officials.

Three other invited lawmakers did not attend: state Sen. Joseph A. Griffo, R-Rome, Assemblyman Kenneth D. Blankenbush, R-Black River and state Sen. Elizabeth O’C. Little, R-Queensbury.

Questions touched on mandate relief, regional schools, the state aid formula and the state’s mechanism of reducing its own debt through the gap elimination adjustment.

In a two-page letter to Gov. Cuomo signed by Clarkson University President Anthony Collins, Potsdam, and St. Lawrence University President William L. Fox, Canton, the two presidents said the financial crisis facing the region’s public schools threatens the economic stability of the largest employers in the region.

“The funding system for our K-12 school districts is creating an inequality that is being felt disproportionately in our region,” according to the letter read at the meeting. “We urge you to repeal the gap elimination adjustment so the students of the north country have an equal chance at a strong future as students in other regions of the state.”

While both Mrs. Ritchie and Mrs. Russell support revising the state aid formula, Mrs. Ritchie’s proposed bill focuses on poor, north country schools while Mrs. Russell’s legislation would also help the state’s five largest city school districts.

However, if Mrs. Russell’s bill passes in the Assembly, Mrs. Ritchie said she will sponsor the bill in the state Senate.

Mrs. Russell blamed the state Senate for perpetuating a state aid funding formula that favors wealthy suburban school districts on Long Island.

“Long-standing backroom deals have driven funding to areas based on politics, not need,” Mrs. Russell said.

In response, Mrs. Ritchie said, “It was the Senate budget that drove more aid to upstate schools, not the Assembly budget.”

Other parts of the state need to share the pain that’s been felt by poorer districts for several years, Ms. Russell said.

“New York City is not the hog. The big five cities are not the hogs. It is suburbia that we need to ask to share a little bit of the pain,” she said.

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