By CRAIG FREILICH
CANTON – About 100 people attended a meeting Thursday night where several North Country representatives to the state Senate and Assembly fielded questions from audience members about the school funding crisis.
What emerged was a consensus that reform of the state aid formula is crucial, but there was no unanimity about how to do it.
“We have all tried to wave the flag to the powers that be in Albany,” said 118th District Assemblyman Marc Butler (R-Newport), but they have not yet persuaded the key player, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, that the issue needs attention while the specter of the state having to run bankrupt schools looms.
The meeting was called by parents, school board members and educators who are concerned that the next session of the state Legislature would not adequately address a state school aid formula that they say is bankrupting poorer rural and big-city districts while prosperous suburban districts are barely affected by the dramatic cuts in school aid over the last several years.
There was some jousting over tactics among the legislators there to address the concerns of people from Canton, Potsdam, Massena, Brasher Falls, Hermon-DeKalb and Colton-Pierrepont school districts, including Butler, who represents a swath of St. Lawrence County townships from Norfolk and Madrid south through Parishville, Stockholm, and Pierrepont, to Colton, Clare, Clifton and Fine; 48th District Sen. Patty Ritchie (R-Heuvelton), whose district includes the western part of St. Lawrence County, including Ogdensburg, Canton and Gouverneur; and Assemblywoman Addie Russell (D-Theresa), whose 116th “River” District includes the townships that run along the St. Lawrence River, plus Canton, Potsdam, Rossie, Macomb and DePeyster.
While Ritchie stressed the legislative efforts she and others have made to try to get equitable funding, and Russell spoke about bills she has sponsored, Russell was convinced that trying to get the two houses to act in time to have a real affect on the next state budget was not practical.
“It’s important to persuade the governor to make meaningful changes in his budget,” which will be presented in a couple of weeks, she said.
Stressing the urgency, Russell said that people who feel strongly about the issue should try to reach the governor’s office “to implore him to include significant changes in the budget” to help poorer schools.
That fits right in with the plan of some of the organizers of Thursday night’s meeting who are asking people to take part in a “Phone Day” Friday, to “call the governor to tell him that he has the power to treat all students fairly in his budget,” and to leave messages for him at his office at (518) 474-8390.
Russell and Butler agreed that the long term solution to the problem is to get the current school aid formula changed through legislation, but considering the workings of the two legislative bodies and the interests of legislators whose districts include schools who could lose funding under a new formula, it would not be an easy task.
“Those legislators will resist having to go back to their schools and tell them they will have to get by with less money,” Butler said.
“Other school districts will have to feel a little bit of the pain we’re feeling here,” Russell said. “Some of those school districts have not had to make any program cuts. They should not expect the same level of funding they have been getting.”
Sen. Ritchie said a key to that process would be to get her bill, now sitting in committee, out for a vote by the Senate.
In the meantime, Russell urged those in attendance to “call, email, write” to those in government who might have some influence, “the most effective way” to spur action in Albany.
An aide to 47th District Sen. Joe Griffo said that the senator was with 117th District Assemblyman Ken Blankenbush, attending a similar meeting in Oswego County. The two men also represent parts of St. Lawrence County.