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Banford Elementary School in Canton. Photo: Canton Central School
Banford Elementary School in Canton. Photo: Canton Central School

State aid cuts mean fewer teachers, parents concerned

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Across the north country, parents and teachers are getting a first-hand look at what state funding cuts mean for their children. Schools in Potsdam, Malone, and elsewhere have cut staff this year. At Canton Central class sizes are much bigger, and the number of course offerings is smaller. Parents and school leaders say it's not good for the kids. And they're concerned more cuts are on the way.

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Students from Canton's AP Government class, after an assembly last spring to explain state aid cuts to other students.

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Reported by

Julie Grant
Reporter and Producer

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Elun Gabriel’s daughter just entered first grade at Banford Elementary.  There are 27 students in the class.  Ten more than last year.

“We had heard, I had heard in the spring maybe classes of 24, 25, then when the average was 26, and my daughters class was 27, that seemed even worse.  So, it wasn’t exactly a surprise, but the scale of it was a surprise.”

Educators consider first grade an especially crucial year – because it’s when many children learn to read.  Gabriel says with so many students in one class, the teacher might not be able to track each child’s progress.  He worries about his daughter.

 “She just won’t be able to get the attention, none of the kids will, as you had a third fewer students.”

The situation is especially bad in the first grade.  But a section has been eliminated at every grade at Banford, which means all elementary classes have more students this year.

Canton high school parent Tedra Cobb led the fight against state budget cuts last spring.  Even her family was surprised by the reduction in class offerings.

“I have 2 high schoolers and my daughter had wanted to take a psychology class.  It was cut.”

“The bottom line is, we cannot hire more people. I know people would like that.”

Barbara Beekman is president of Canton Central Board of Education.  She says the district had to make up for $2.5-million dollar budget shortfall.

“There is no magic wand to make more money, there just isn’t.  And I know the staff will make whatever changes they need to make to mitigate what is a hard solution.”

“It’s a hard thing for everybody.  But this is a direct result of the state of state funding.”

Beekman says the state aid formula is inequitable – especially for low wealth, rural schools.

School officials, parents, and students from Canton, Potsdam and many other small, rural districts across upstate New York lobbied in Albany during the state budget process earlier this year. 

And the north country’s lawmakers supported them.  But Beekman says it didn’t make much difference.

Most New York school districts have gotten cuts to their state aid.  Beekman  repeats the numbers  heard all through last winter and spring – Canton’s funding was cut 4-times as much as similarly-sized, wealthier districts downstate.

 “It’s hard to see where we’re sharing the pain of difficult economic times, when a similarly sized district loses over 3 years, 1200 dollars and we’re losing 4800 dollars, when they were already spending per pupil lots more money than Canton.  It proportionally makes that cut even bigger.”

Beekman and others have been trying to keep attention on this issue.  They’ve spoken out at recent meetings of the Governor’s Education Reform Commission, and the North Country’s Regional Economic Development Council.

At the end of school last June, Banford Principal Joe McDonough was looking at a number of retirements.  But he had to leave the positions unfilled.

He called it painful, but was still optimistic about the elementary school.

“I do think that we can continue provide a quality education at Canton, and I think that people are committed to making sure that happens.  It’s a great faculty and staff, and people who work here are committed to children and are quality educators.”

But if something doesn’t change in terms of funding, the young, new principal is concerned about next year…

 “But we absolutely can’t endure the same level of funding cuts again, without the result being catastrophic.”

As school board member Barbara Beekman puts it…

“Districts will be going out of business, or just be completely inadequate.  We’re not there yet.  But five years ago I would have said that’s an inconceivable thing, and I wouldn’t say that now.”

Governor Cuomo has created a new commission to recommend ways to improve the New York’s education system.  The chairman of that commission was not available this week for an interview.  But as far as fixing the school aid formula, Canton Central’s Barbara Beekman says she’s skeptical the commission will make much difference.

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