LAKE PLACID - The inequities of the state's school aid formula, the impact of budget cuts on North Country schools and the challenges of preparing high school students for college and the work force were some of the biggest concerns raised by speakers who testified before a state education reform commission here Wednesday, Aug. 29.
The New NY Education Reform Commission has been holding a series of public hearings across the state to gather input from local stakeholders on ways to improve the state's public education system. The 20-member commission was appointed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo earlier this year.
"We're holding 10 to 11 meetings around the state, and this is our chance to come up here," said commission member Elizabeth Dickey, who chaired Wednesday's session in the absence of the commission's appointed chairman, Richard Parsons. Dickey is the president of the Bank Street College of Education in New York City. "The meetings are highly informative, because they bring stakeholders and community members into closer touch with us. It makes the whole conversation less abstract and more authentic."
The hearing, which was held at the Lake Placid Conference Center, drew an audience of about 100 people. It featured testimony from a wide range of educators, including teachers, school superintendents and college officials. Representatives of the business community were also on hand.
Some of the most telling testimony throughout the two-hour-plus hearing came from one of several high school students who spoke. Ansel Shipley, a junior at Canton High School, studied the state aid system for his Advanced Placement government class.
Over the last three years, Shipley said his school's gap elimination adjustment, a reduction in school aid that was implemented to help reduce the state budget deficit, has been higher than that of a similar-size downstate district with a wealthier tax base. In the upcoming school year, for example, he said Canton lost $1,630 per pupil while the downstate school lost $456. Shipley said the loss of funding has led his district to cut non-mandated classes that he said have affected students.
"There is no possible scenario where the current gap elimination adjustment is fair or right or just," Shipley said. "If the commission is looking for a solution to the problems, the solution is to provide each student with the same access to quality education as every other student in New York state."
Other speakers called for action on other issues impacting school finances. Douglas Gerhardt, president of Management Advocates for School Labor Affairs, a statewide labor relations group, called for changes to a provision of the state's Taylor Law that preserves all terms of an expired contract, including benefits and annual step increases to salaries, while a new contract is being negotiated.
"I think only when the possibility of layoffs or risks of jobs are at stake do we really get the leveling of the playing field at the negotiating table," Gerhardt said.
Gerhardt also said state regulations should be updated and changed to encourage more shared services among school districts and other government entities. He also called on the state to limit school districts' exposure to increases in health insurance and pension costs.
Improving high school students' readiness for college and the work force was also a big focus of the hearing. Joe Pete Wilson of North Country Community College said not enough students graduate from high school prepared for college, which makes it harder to complete college and harder to get in the work force.
Wilson coordinates the Adirondack Early College High School program, a partnership between NCCC and the school districts in Saranac Lake, Tupper Lake and Lake Placid that allows students to earn up to 20 college credits before they graduate high school, "to smooth the way into college and a career beyond." Wilson said he's concerned about sustaining the program, citing the rural nature of the area and the financial challenges faced by many local families and students. He asked the commission to support allowing students to access the Tuition Assistance Program so they can pay for college credits while they're still in high school.
Other speakers recommended more promotion and investment in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) programs, and more professional development for teachers in those fields to ready students for careers in the "real world."
"Some kind of more meaningful, sustained, consistent work-readiness certification on a statewide basis needs to be a priority if we're going to reform education and put students on the path to more meaningful employment," said Garry Douglas, president of the Plattsburgh-North Country Chamber of Commerce and co-chair of the North Country Regional Economic Development Council.
Only a half-dozen of the commission's members were on hand for Wednesday's hearing. They listened and asked questions during the panel discussion.
Commission member Sen. John Flanagan, R-Long Island, said some of the issues raised at the hearing, like those faced by rural schools, have come up at other hearings around the state.
"The consistent themes I heard: people are worried; people are also grateful for the successes they've had," Flanagan said after the hearing. "It seems to me we have to be a lot more innovative. Hopefully one of the offshoots of this commission is we start to look at things differently. It doesn't always have to be about money. If we can find ways to do it more creatively and efficiently, that's a good thing."
The panel's next hearing is in Newburgh on Sept. 10. It's charged with submitting its preliminary recommendations to Gov. Andrew Cuomo by Dec. 1.