Legislators discuss education reform
Mandate relief was once again a topic of consideration at the 2012 Erie County Association of School Boards Legislative Breakfast, held Saturday at the Protocol Restaurant on Transit Road
Legislative representatives were asked what they’ve been doing to promote reform. Legislators in attendance included Sen. Patrick Gallivan, R-Elma; Sen. Michael Ranzenhofer, R-Clarence; Assemblywoman Jane Corwin, R-Clarence; Assemblyman Dennis Gabryszak, D-Cheektowaga; Sen. Mark Grisanti, R-Tonawanda; Assemblyman Kevin Smardz, R-Hamburg; and Assemblyman Ray Walter, R-Amherst.
The Triborough Amendment requires that employees continue to get pay increases under expired contracts, something districts can’t afford, and pension cost increases are no longer sustainable, said David Zalenski, president of the Lancaster Board of Education.
Corwin said there have been multiple bills introduced to try to change the Triborough Amendment requirements. The legislative minority has taken a position against it, and she said she will do whatever it takes to push reform.
Gabryszak said area representatives support changes to the requirements, but he doesn’t think it’s “on the radar of the powers that be” at this time. He said the governor has said changes to the Triborough Amendment aren’t going to happen now.
Gallivan said a council has been set up to allow districts to raise concerns about mandates. A public hearing will be held by the Mandate Relief Council on March 16 in Western New York, he said.
“I would urge you to get out there and speak up before the council ... hopefully, we will see some results out of that,” he said.
Gabryszak said upstate representatives advocate for their constituents, but downstate representatives also fight for what they think is best for their district.
Ranzenhofer said he has invited the chair of the Education Committee, of which he is a member, to visit the Western New York area to open his eyes to the concerns area residents have.
Depew Superintendent Jeffrey Rabey said Erie County districts are mostly average or low-wealth districts and they expect their fair share of state aid.
A letter was sent to the governor last year that was signed by Gallivan and Ranzenhofer, among others, that requested districts be treated fairly. Rabey asked who would be willing to sign a similar letter this year.
Those present said they would be willing to sign such a letter. This year’s letter is currently being circulated for signatures, said Gallivan.
Legislators are asking that as much of the $250 million earmarked in the governor’s budget for competitive aid be offered as general funding. Very few districts in the area would qualify for the performance grants, he said.
Grisanti said districts with better grant writers might be more successful than other districts, making it more a measure of their skill than the actual success of education in a district.
Lynn Fusco, superintendent of the Alden school district, said 90 percent of schools are funded below 2007-08 levels. She said districts have agreed to one-shot budget fixes, such as layoffs, cuts and closed buildings, that won’t be possible each year.
She asked legislators not to shift millions in unfunded mandates onto districts by making them pay for such things as Medicaid costs for preschoolers.
Walter said the U.S. education system has been on the path toward federal consolidation since the 1960s and ’70s and has seen success rates diminish in comparison to other countries. He said more control should be given to individual districts to allow them to tailor themselves to their communities.
Ranzenhofer cited the recent teacher evaluation requirements as a mandate that may not accomplish anything significant. He said he wants to see its costs quantified and believes the state should provide funding.
Gabryszak said some of the things that districts are asking for won’t happen overnight, but legislators are working to accomplish them.
“We do try to make the system more equitable,” he said.
An audience member asked why legislators are encouraging both school district consolidation and the creation of charter schools.
Walter said he believes choice should be offered in places, such as inner cities, where the schools are failing. Charter schools are one way that seems to work, he said.
Corwin said she doesn’t think there is a big push to force consolidation, but, in her opinion, the laws should allow for consolidation if it makes sense on an individual basis.
Ranzenhofer said sharing services or consolidating administration might be a better option than completely merging districts.