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Education Reform Rally encourages participation in state aid battle

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MASSENA - The Alliance for Quality Education is seeking a $1.9 billion increase in state aid to schools, but officials say they could use an organized effort from throughout the state to convince officials in Albany about the necessity of the increase.

Jasmine Gripper, statewide education advocate for the Alliance for Equality Education, said Thursday night - one day after Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s State of the State speech - that now is the time for action.

“Now we’re waiting for his budget. We want to influence that budget as much as possible,” Ms. Gripper told audience members who attended an Education Reform Rally organized by the AQE and Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell in the Massena High School auditorium.

“We are involved and organizing. Now we need your help. We can’t do this alone. We need parents and organizers,” she said.

“They continue the fight on a statewide level. Their Alliance for a Quality Education agenda is absolutely on target. We need to start to galvanize communities around the state,” Ms. Russell said.

Ms. Russell noted that, with a new session starting in Albany, now was the time to start organizing to let voices be heard in Albany.

“The governor is beginning to lay out his initiatives. It is critically important this year, more than any other year, to make significant progress in education funding,” she said.

She noted that in 2007 a case involving the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, which demanded equitable funding for all schools, was settled. The state was ordered to make up $5.5 billion aid.

“Essentially the students won,” Ms. Gripper said.

But it was short-lived, lasting until the commitment was abandoned during the recent recession, according to the speakers, and more cuts have been made to education funding since then.

“They did it for two years. Then the financial crisis hit,” Ms. Gripper said.

In Massena’s case, Ms. Gripper said the district had received $4,204,927 before the payments stopped. They were still owed $14,064,002.

“Only 30 percent of the promised aid made it to Massena,” she said.

“That (funding) has been completely obliterated. The promise was not kept,” Ms. Russell said, noting New York ranked 44th in the nation for doling out school aid in an equitable manner.

After that, Ms. Gripper said, the state began to balance its budget “on the backs of the students” through the Gap Elimination Adjustment.

Massena lost $2.6 million, according to Ms. Gripper, and $1,027,426 was restored, leaving another $1,654,757 that was still owed.

“They are paying less for education than they did in 2008 even though costs have gone up,” she said, noting districts had been successful in getting more state aid than was contained in the governor’s proposal for the past two years, “but it hasn’t matched up to what it used to be.”

As a result, school districts began cutting. From 2011 to 2014, Ms. Gripper said, 35,000 educators have been lost statewide to cuts, along with programs such as arts and music.

“There were 25 positions cut in Massena alone last year,” Ms. Russell said, noting the cuts also eliminated the district’s Alternative Education program.

“Those are the stories the governor needs to hear,” Ms. Gripper suggested.

Now, she said, they’re trying to make up what schools have lost. Their $1.9 billion state aid request this year includes $1 billion for new classroom operating aid, $225 million for full-day pre-kindergarten, $110 million for community schools, $300 million for curriculum restoration and enhancement, $250 million for expense-based aid and $20 million for improving the school climate.

Ms. Russell said the governor is aware of the request, and they’re hoping that, by giving it to him early in the process, he’ll consider as part of his budget proposal which will be released on Jan. 21.

“Sixty-five members of the majority have signed on. I would say the majority of the majority in the Assembly are in favor of $1.9 billion. The devil is in the details,” she said.

But, Ms. Gripper said, they needed community involvement to make that request become a reality.

She said the first step was to organize the effort.

“If you bring 1,000 of us together, he will begin to listen,” she said, noting that they plan to have 1,500 people from across the state, including students, parents and community groups, at a Jan. 14 rally.

The rally will give those individuals an opportunity to tell the stories of how education cuts have affected their schools, she said.

“It’s not one part of the state that’s hurting; it’s all across the state. This is the chance where you have the power to organize,” Ms. Gripper said.

Step two is to educate and “share what’s happening in your schools,” she said. “We are more than happy to give you the tools you need to and share our knowledge.”

Step three, she said, is to “agitate.”

“People really get annoyed when they hear about cuts. People are moved by that. People need to become angry,” she said.

As part of the effort, Ms. Gripper said they could sign postcards, go to meetings, recruit friends to take part in the effort and jump on a bus and go to Albany to speak with their elected representatives.

She suggested that anyone interested in organizing a trip to Albany could coordinate with Chad Radock, statewide campaign coordinator for the Alliance for a Quality Education, at 978-376-8178.

“You don’t have to feel it only has to be from Massena. It’s important that the north country have a presence at these events,” Ms. Russell said.

Although there have been discussions about how school consolidation could solve state aid problems, the assemblywoman said it wouldn’t always be necessary to even consider such a move.

“If Massena had the $10 million the state owes you, you’d be doing pretty well,” she said. “The discussions would be more productive if you didn’t have schools that felt like they had to. Our schools did have creative programs, but they’ve had to disappear out of necessity. You can’t even do distance learning. Utilization of BOCES has plummeted. We can’t even afford to send our kids to these programs.”

Meanwhile, Ms. Russell said, some schools continue to rake in aid while others like those in the north country suffer.

“School aid has been perverted by the political process for years,” she said, suggesting New York City lawmakers couldn’t go back to their districts with less state aid than their schools had received the previous year.

“We have to get politics out of this. I take the gloves off because we deserve it here. We didn’t have all the bells and whistles before the recession. It’s embarrassing what we’re going to have left,” she said. “If we all get together, we can overcome that. We have to just continue to work away and break at those barriers that are there.”

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