School board member on the state of education in New York

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Rochester school board member Willa Powell submitted the following prior to Governor Cuomo’s 2013 State of State address this afternoon.

Today, Governor Cuomo delivers his State of the State address. Among other points, I expect he will talk about the difficult fiscal conditions that continue to plague NY in the aftermath of The Great Recession, and more recently of Hurricane Sandy. He will also likely boast that in 2012, he and this Legislature has “reigned in” costs by enacting a law that limits education funding growth to a “maximum allowable growth” of no more than the increase in personal income or the amount of overall inflation, whichever is less (referred to as the Personal Wealth Index). He will likely promise an on-time, balanced budget. When he turns his attention to Education, he may boast that his Education Commission has recently reported out its recommendations and that he supports these recommendations.

This is what he will not say about education:

That while delivering an on-time balanced budget is mandated by the NY State Constitution, the NY State Constitution also guarantees a “meaningful high school education” for all students in NY State, yet the State has failed to meet this constitutional obligation according to NY State’s highest court.

That the 2007 Contract for Excellence education funding law, which initially called for complete phase-in by 2011-12 in accordance with the NY State Court of Appeals CFE ruling, was revised to extend the completion date of the phase-in to 2015-16, but did not lay out a plan for how the funding will reach the original goal. (They did not repeal the education funding law, nor reject the funding goals set by the courts, state agencies, or the legislature itself.)

That subsequent to the 2007 Contract for Excellence law, the NY Legislature introduced a temporary “gap elimination adjustment” that alters the phase-in schedule in a manner that challenges the intention of the funding formula, harming the State’s neediest children, and that “gap elimination adjustment” was made permanent in 2012.

That the Personal Wealth Index mechanism of capping the growth of education aid in the NY State budget makes it impossible for the state to ever meet the funding goals demanded by the 2007 Contract for Excellence law.

That the current State education budget is 30 percent below the goal for the 2012-13 year (as stated in the 2007 law), without any adjustment for inflation.

That since the onset of The Great Recession, the Legislature and the Governor have had three years to eliminate hundreds of recommended mandates that inflate the cost of education delivery in NY State, or to otherwise indicate what programs currently required by the State Department of Education are non-essential. No mandates have been eliminated, not even the reporting mandates enacted with the 2007 Contract for Excellence, even though there is no new funding to Contract for Excellence impacted districts. This amounts to telling high needs districts to “do more with less” or “make bricks without straw”.

That the highly touted Education Commission neither makes recommendations for cost reduction through mandate relief, nor recommends funding increases to meet the constitutional mandate.

“The fact that the state has also accompanied its budget cuts and deferral of the CFE increases with a cap on general support for public schools determined by the rate of growth in personal income in the state, and the “gap elimination adjustment” mechanism has now been made a permanent part of the law, indicates that the state has no intention of ever providing the promised funding increases.” (Michael Rebell, 2012 article in the Albany Law Review, p 1902, http://schoolfunding.info/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/Safeguarding-Sound-Basic-Education-75-Alb-L.-Rev-18552012.pdf, emphasis mine)

In my humble opinion, if the Governor’s budget proposal for 2013-14 is consistent with these two legislative mechanisms that limit the implementation Contract for Excellence funding to a rate that cannot foreseeably translate into full funding by 2015-16 as promised in the revised legislation, the Rochester City School Board should be prepared to sue the Gov. Cuomo and the State of NY. NY Small City School Boards Association initiated such a suit on the premise that the state would renege on its promise. 2012 was the year that proved their premise, and we must be prepared to act likewise.

While School Board members are locally elected, we swear an oath to act as agents of the State, to implement THE STATE’s constitutional obligation to provide a sound basic education. The State’s highest court — a coequal branch of government — has told the State what its constitutional obligation is, and the Governor and the Legislature accepted that obligation as a matter of law in 2007. While School Boards are in no way coequal, as agents of the state, we have an obligation to hold the State accountable to the public for its failure to meet the constitutional rights of its most vulnerable population: children in the highest needs areas of the state, whose poverty prevents local government from providing the resources to meet this obligation without the financial help of the State.

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