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Superintendent on Cuomo plan: Aid tied to reform agenda creates budget uncertainty

Filed in Archive by on January 26, 2015

Budget discussions surrounding a proposed 2015-16 budget for the Bethlehem Central School District will include an added level of uncertainty following Governor Andrew Cuomo’s annual budget presentation on January 21, according to Superintendent Thomas J. Douglas.

Under the Executive Budget Proposal, state funding for schools would increase statewide by $1.1 billion next year only if state lawmakers bow to pressure from Governor Cuomo to approve a series of education reforms he put forward in his combined budget address and State of the State message. If they fail to do so, the Governor has proposed no increase in aid to the state’s public schools in 2015-16 or in 2016-17.

“We first learned school aid would be used as a pawn in the state budget process when, during his address, Governor Cuomo said his proposed $1.1 billion increase in aid to education would shrink to $377 million if he did not get his way,” said Superintendent Thomas J. Douglas. “On closer inspection, we now know Executive Budget language shows there would be zero increase in aid above current levels if the Legislature does not respond as instructed by Andrew Cuomo.”

Cuomo’s agenda includes an overhaul of the existing teacher evaluation law, changes to tenure requirements, expansion of the cap on charter schools, a new turnaround process for the state’s lowest performing schools, and expansion of Pre-K programs.

Dr. Douglas said until these measures are approved by the State Legislature, Cuomo has directed his Division of Budget to withhold any school aid runs — the district-by-district aid estimates which are traditionally released shortly after the Governor’s budget is presented.

“Creating the district budget always includes uncertainty when it comes to the level of state aid the district will receive,” said Dr. Douglas. “Until now, however, we could always use the Executive Budget as a jumping off point in our own budget process, which unlike the state budget, is presented with transparency and negotiated in open public sessions.

“Now we have aid being held hostage and are faced with creating a budget subject to the whims of one elected official, Governor Andrew Cuomo,” said Dr. Douglas.

Superintendent Douglas said Governor Cuomo did not address the Gap Elimination Adjustment, (GEA) in his proposed 2015-16 budget. The GEA is the mechanism through which the Governor has diverted promised public school funding over the last several years to meet other budget priorities. In that time, Bethlehem has lost more than $18 million in state aid. Statewide, local public schools have lost more than $9 billion, money that has instead been used to balance the state budget.

“The Governor’s proposed budget will make a trying annual process even more difficult, keeping us guessing as to whether we will receive additional aid or be relieved of our GEA burden,” said the Superintendent. “I hope the Assembly and Senate will use common sense in addressing crucial funding for public schools and the 1.6 million students they serve throughout New York State.

“I still have every confidence that in such a supportive community, our Board of Education, along with my administrative and instructional teams, will be able to overcome these very unusual circumstances and continue to deliver educational excellence to the students of Bethlehem,” he added.

Teacher evaluation plan “problematic”

Dr. Douglas said at the heart of the Governor Cuomo’s reform package is a proposal to change existing teacher and principal evaluation plans used by school districts to place greater emphasis on standardized test results. Currently, state testing represents 20 percent of the evaluations that determine a teacher rating of highly effective, effective, developing or ineffective. In his speech, Cuomo outlined a plan that would revise the process so that 50 percent of scores are based on state exams and the other 50 percent on observations. While many other details of this plan are still unknown, Gov. Cuomo did say that the elements of the scoring system for teacher observations would be set in state law, rather than locally negotiated as they are now.

“School and teacher accountability are important and, in Bethlehem, we have collaborated with faculty, staff and the Board of Education to ensure a system that identifies areas of teacher strengths and potential growth. It is one that already includes measures of student achievement and test results,” said Dr. Douglas.  “Increasing the reliance on state tests would place undue stress on some classrooms, create an unlevel playing field in many circumstances, and would do little to serve the district or its students.

“Proposing a plan with such a weighty emphasis on testing is also problematic when you consider the overwhelming majority of teachers in any school district are not required to give state tests. Only grades three through eight are tested annually, in math and English language arts,” said Dr. Douglas.  “This fact seems to have been overlooked by Governor Cuomo and his advisors on education.”

The Executive Budget Proposal now heads to the state legislature for consideration. A final state budget is expected by April 1, 2015.