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10-year old Aryn Rivers, a fifth-grader at Canton Central, is lobbying for state aid for her school.  Photo: Julie Grant
10-year old Aryn Rivers, a fifth-grader at Canton Central, is lobbying for state aid for her school. Photo: Julie Grant

North Country schools fight for fiscal survival

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It may sound like you've heard this one before: North Country parents, students, and school officials are lobbying lawmakers in Albany for more state aid. There was a big push in districts like Canton and Potsdam last spring for more state money. But it didn't help much.

Now the stakes are even higher; many districts expect to be insolvent within a couple of years, and some even sooner, if things don't change. But they say they're not going down without a fight.

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Julie Grant
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It's the weekend, and it's less than two weeks until Christmas. Nearly 20 families have come to a yoga studio in Canton over the past couple of days to write letters. Some people are sitting at computers. Others are addressing envelopes. These are not holiday cards or letters to Santa. They're to Senator Patty Ritchie, to the state education secretary, and to Governor Andrew Cuomo.

Ten-year old Aryn Rivers reads from her letter: "Dear Governor Cuomo, It has come to my attention that when the budget comes to pass that our school will have no music, art, sports, and pool." She's in fifth-grade at Canton Central. Aryn says the state should do more to help her district.

"I really like art. I want to be an artist as well as a marine biologist. They're going to cut all art. And all band."

Canton parent Kim Sisk writes a letter to lobby for increased school funding.  Photo: Julie Grant
Canton parent Kim Sisk writes a letter to lobby for increased school funding. Photo: Julie Grant
Canton Central has become somewhat of a poster child for how the school aid formula, and other education cuts, unfairly hurt some districts. Canton has lost more, in relative terms, than almost any district in the state. And it has low property values, which means it can't make up the losses with a local tax hike, especially with the state's 2 percent tax hike cap.

District Superintendent Bill Gregory has been sounding the alarm bell throughout the fall. He says if something doesn't change, Canton will be fiscally and educationally insolvent next autumn.

"At this point, we are looking at having to deal with potentially a two million dollar gap. And if we don't have the state aid to redress that gap, we're going to have to reduce programming and staff, because we don't have the reserves to offset that gap."

Gregory says Canton Central has eliminated 42 positions over the past couple of years. And next year looks worse.

In addition to the things Aryn Rivers mentioned, sports, arts, music, Gregory says Canton would eliminate everything that's not mandated. That means no agriculture program, and no Pre-K. Kindergarten would be cut to a half day. And more teaching positions would be cut, leaving the remaining teachers with class sizes in the mid-30s. Gregory isn't sure what the district will do.

We physically don't have the space to put 35 kids in a classroom...We can't go where we would be forced to, we just can't do it.
"We physically don't have the space to put 35 kids in a classroom. So that becomes a logistical problem alone. We can't go where we would be forced to, we just can't do it. So there's going to have to be some other alternative."

When this issue came up last school year, the community lobbying effort didn't start until springtime. But the governor's budget proposal was already out, and there wasn't much they could do. This time, students went on a bus trip to Albany in early December. Eighth grade social studies teacher Ryan Ames accompanied about 30 students from Canton and Potsdam. He says it's essential to lobby before Governor Cuomo releases his budget.

"Well when the budget comes out in January, we're trying basically a last minute, Hail Mary kind of thing. Before you do the budget, don't forget about us because we're heading to a point where we might not even have a school."

About 700 students from districts around the state gathered at the state museum that day. Students in poor districts are worried they won't be competitive when applying for colleges. Canton senior Cassandra Griffin says they don't have the Advanced Placement and other electives needed to fill their transcripts.

"Right now I have so many study halls in my day, because I didn't want that for my senior year. There's no electives. There's a few, but what we have, it's going to be gone."

Governor Cuomo didn't talk directly with the student lobbyists. But when he was asked by reporters that day about the request for more education aid, the governor said this year's budget already added $800 million for schools.

"Look education funding went up four percent this year. Four percent is a lot of money. That is a very, very large increase. What else in your life has gone up four percent? Most people's income hasn't gone up their home value hasn't gone up 4 percent, their savings haven't gone up 4 percent. That is a significant increase. You can't get water out of a stone."

Still, most New York school districts got less money this year than they did in the 2008-2009 school year. A recent survey found many are going broke. In the North Country, in particular, the numbers are alarming, with 25 percent of school districts saying they will be financially insolvent within two years. And nearly half say they will be educationally insolvent in two years.

The Campaign for Educational Equity says New York students have a constitutional right to qualified teachers, reasonable class sizes, and a variety of services and programs. Campaign Director Michael Rebell studied 33 districts in New York City, rural areas, and elsewhere, and found that many can't provide the minimum education, as defined by the state.

"Thirteen of the 33 schools we visited are not providing sufficient instructional time in science to meet state minimum requirements, five schools are not meeting the state minimums in social studies, three are not meeting the minimums in mathematics. These are the core subjects."

Rebell says the courts have ruled that students also have the right to art, health, and tech classes. Many schools only offer Spanish, with no option to take French or other foreign languages.

"It's a devastating indictment, what we found. And what bothers me the most is that the state is not seriously looking at this stuff."

In 2006, New York's highest court ordered the state to increase funding to poor districts. Soon after, lawmakers promised to add $7-billion dollars in state aid for schools. But in 2009, the state starting making huge cuts in education funding. Rebell says the state is at least $5 billion behind the money it promised.

"The legislature and the governor, before they went cutting all this money, they should have thought about what going to be the impact on kids, on their constitutional rights, and all they've done is add up how much have we saved, can we balance the budget."

Legislative leaders in the North Country are trying to get more money funneled to poor schools. Assembly member Addie Russell of Theresa says something needs to be done in this budget cycle, or the state will need to figure out how to takeover insolvent school districts.

"This is a situation where the state has manipulated the funding formula to the point where they are causing these problems."

Russell and Senator Pattie Ritchie of Heuvelton have differing proposals to change the state aid formula - but both want state aid that's currently going to wealthier districts funneled to poor schools.

State senator Betty Little of Queensbury now represents part of St. Lawrence County. She agrees that rural districts need more state aid. But she says districts also must find ways to save money. For example, St. Regis Falls and Brushton-Moira have started sharing one superintendent. She says Lake Placid and Saranac Lake aren't going that far, "but they're looking at ways that curriculum, transportation, things like that, how can they work together and try to reduce their costs so we have more money going to the classroom."

Little says Governor Cuomo has talked about a $700 million increase for schools in this year's budget- that's less than last year. But with money needed for Hurricane Sandy recovery, it could be reduced further.

Education lobbyists say that's not good enough, and are talking about another lawsuit if New York doesn't find more money for poor schools. But that won't come in time for districts like Canton - where nothing short of a cash infusion will save them from insolvency – both financial and educational - next fall.

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