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Education rally highlights plight of Valley schools

photo of two men talking

Featured speaker Dr. Rick Timbs answers a question for a rally attendee.

New York state’s formula for funding schools is cheating Mohawk Valley students, and residents must demand a change.

That was the message delivered to almost 250 school board members, school employees, residents and students at the Fight for Our Valley Schools education rally sponsored by Herkimer-Fulton-Hamilton-Otsego BOCES on Thursday, March 6, at Herkimer College. Statewide School Finance Consortium Executive Director Rick Timbs, Herkimer Central School District Board of Education Vice-President Robert Mihevc and Herkimer Student Council President Daniel Adamek each delivered an impassioned message to the crowd painting a factual, but bleak picture of the plight facing the area’s schools.

“The truth is: You’re getting the short end of the stick,” Timbs told the audience.

Mihevc emceed the evening, welcoming attendees, introducing guests and offering his perspective of how state funding has negatively impacted his home district.

Throughout the evening, attendees texted friends and tweeted their support of the initiative.

After the event, Assemblywoman Claudia Tenney spoke with many to listen to their concerns and to also encourage their involvement.

Numbers speak volumes

Photo of three adults speaking.

Herkimer Board of Education Robert Mihevc (left) and Herkimer BOCES District Superintendent Mark Vivacqua (center) discuss school funding problems with Assemblywoman Claudia Tenney.

Timbs spoke for more than one hour, delivering a data-packed presentation that explained how New York’s school funding process deprives poorer schools of much-needed money while continuing to supplement the already strong academic and extracurricular programs of wealthier districts. (view a PDF of view Dr. Timb’s full presentation)

The problem begins with the simple fact that the Valley’s school districts lack the resources necessary to support their schools, he said. Using the state’s measure of a district’s wealth, the average New York school district is 1.1 times wealthier than Poland, the area’s wealthiest district, and 2.7 times wealthier than Central Valley, the area’s poorest district. He shocked the audience when he revealed that one New York school district is 52 times wealthier than the state average, making it more than 100 times wealthier than the average school in the Herkimer BOCES. Without sufficient resources to fully support their own schools, local districts rely more heavily on state aid than the average state school.

So, when the state began cutting school aid in 2009-10 to close the state’s budget deficit, it hurt Valley schools and its students worse than the average school. These cuts, known as the Gap Elimination Adjustment or GEA, have totaled $42.1 million dollars over four years to the 10 Herkimer BOCES component school districts—$8.38 million for Central Valley alone.

“If there wasn’t a GEA – if there wasn’t a cut – life would be a lot easier in schools,” Timbs said.

Timbs noted that the GEA hurts poorer schools more than it hurts wealthier schools because poorer districts lack a property tax base to make up for lost revenue. His data reveals that area schools would have to raise property taxes by 5 to 13 percent to offset revenue lost under the 2014-15 projected GEA, while wealthy districts would only need to raise taxes by less than 1 percent.

He also refuted claims that the schools will get more state aid than in past years as the state reduces the GEA. He explained that districts will receive more aid than last year, but still not as much as they were promised four years ago. According to Timbs, even the GEA restoration plan penalizes poorer districts. In 2013-14, the poorest districts received an additional $83 per pupil while the wealthiest districts received $220 per pupil.

Unable to further burden local taxpayers, local school districts have cut staff and program and spent their savings. He warned that districts can cut the same teacher once or spend their savings once; schools are running out of options.

Repeatedly, he asked the crowd if they were beginning to see a pattern.

More than state aid and the GEA

Timbs said two other state initiatives are crippling schools.

The tax levy limit, mistakenly called the 2 percent tax cap, takes even more money from Herkimer BOCES school districts.

“None of the districts in this auditorium can raise their budgets more than 1 percent and still stay within the (2014-15) 1.46 percent tax levy limit,” he said.

He also decried the unfairness of the STAR property tax exemption saying that the state has increased the exemption in wealthy districts. The increase lowers the taxes of those living in the state’s wealthier communities, despite the fact that these communities enjoy high incomes and schools with broad academic and extracurricular programs.

A call to action

Timbs closed by encouraging everyone to ask elected officials to end the GEA and to develop a school funding plan that ensures students in all areas of the state, regardless of community wealth, of the high quality education they deserve.

photo of student Daniel Adamek speaking with adults

Herkimer Student Council President Daniel Adamek speaks to attendees following his impassioned plea for people to stand up for fair funding for Valley schools.

Herkimer High School Student Council President Daniel Adamek took the microphone to present a student perspective on school funding. During a special summer program in Vermont, he had the opportunity to meet with students from throughout New England. Those conversations led him to fully realize how little his school could offer compared to other schools.

He stood before the audience and recorded a brief video of himself saying, “Governor Cuomo, my name is Dan Adamek, and I have a message for you.” Then, he turned the video camera toward the audience who chanted in unison, “Save our schools, save our schools!”

He invited everyone to visit a newly launched, student-run website Students for Fair Funding at www.fairfundingny.webs.com.

“We must tell our government that quality education is a human right – not a privilege reserved for the rich,” Adamek said.

Getting involved

People wishing to take a more active role supporting their schools are invited to use the Advocacy Toolkit (download a PDF of the toolkit). It offers ways to reach out to legislators and neighbors with the message that our schools are in trouble and need immediate help. The toolkit includes a sample letter to the governor and the contact information for area legislators.