State Senator Cecilia Tkaczyk made a vow when she became a senator that she would visit all the school districts in her senate district every year. Once a “frustrated school board member,” she wanted to provide a direct contact to the state for local school officials.
Tkaczyk visited Mount Marion Elementary School during the January School Board meeting. While her goal ostensibly was to establish a dialogue with the Board of Education, she also brought with her information about the various debates surrounding education law and funding in Albany.
Senator Tkaczyk, along with a number of her colleagues, recently proposed a $1.9 billion increase to state education funding. State funding for most districts is at the same level as 2008-2009 despite rising costs, which has caused “property owners to shoulder more” of the cost of education, she said. The state’s budgetary “gap elimination adjustment” is among the reasons to blame, as it allows the state to take a percentage of funding from all school districts to balance its own budget. The senator said the gap elimination adjustment “should go away.”
Tkaczyk’s assertions were in line with Superintendent Seth Turner’s presentation to the board at the December meeting, during which business administrator Lissa Jilek said the gap elimination adjustment has cost the district $11.7 million since 2010, an amount which is equal to 4.1 percent of the total operating budget, and breaks down to over $800 per pupil.
The reason the state aid freeze is particularly destructive, according to Tkaczyk, is that it’s coming at a time when schools must follow increased mandates. She said that because of the new mandates, like the Common Core curriculum, educators have more work to do and therefore need more resources. She says she would like to see administrators able to “put the pink slips in the drawers” this year.
The board members were receptive to Tkaczyk’s position, though Florence Hyatt asked what the chances were of actually seeing any of the proposed $1.9 billion increase. Tkaczyk pointed out that last year there was an increase of $900 million, so there is some hope.
School Board Vice President Thomas Ham echoed the senator’s remarks regarding the relationship between mandates and funding, and said any additional funding Saugerties has received in the past few years has been offset by increased mandates, leaving the district at “status quo.” He told Tkaczyk that schools “need some real mandate relief.”
On the subject of altering the current mandates, including increased standardized testing, Common Core curriculum and the especially controversial data sharing, Tkaczyk said she is certain that these topics will be hotly debated during this legislative session. She believes legislators have sent the message to the Board of Regents that changes must be made. The changes, though, should not be up to the legislators, who should not be determining education policy.
Turner said at the Ulster County School Boards Association meeting he recently attended he felt like “our voices are being heard.” At this meeting, which was also attended by assemblymen Pete Lopez and Kevin Cahill, as well as senators Seward and Bonacic , Turner said he learned that “legislators want state ed to fix the issue, or they will take the unprecedented step of creating education policy. They don’t want to, but they’ve heard from their constituents.”
Trustee Robert Thomann, who also attended the Ulster County School Boards Association meeting earlier in the month, said that he was “cautiously optimistic” about changes to education mandates, and said that state legislators are feeling the pressure, and that “it is imperative that we keep pressure on them.”
As for the legislator who attended the Saugerties School Board meeting, Cecilia Tkaczyk, Superintendent Turner asked her to “keep fighting the good fight.”