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Schools press lawmakers for changes to save funds

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KINDERHOOK–Representatives from school boards in Columbia and Rensselaer counties met recently with their assemblymen and state senators to discuss ways Albany can help them reduce costs in their districts. And last Thursday, February 11, members of the Bi-County School Board Committee gathered at Ichabod Crane Middle School to talk about how those meetings went and decide what steps to take next.

Members of the Ichabod Crane, Chatham, Hudson and Schodack boards were present. Along with those school boards, Berkshire Union Free School District board in Canaan supported the legislative agenda.

The committee met with Senators Roy MacDonald (R-43rd) and Stephen Saland (R-41st), and Assemblymen Marcus Molinaro (R–103rd) and Tim Gordon (I-108th) separately during January at each representative’s office. The schools group drafted a legislative agenda in December, identifying laws and regulations which, according to the group’s letter to legislators, “do not facilitate the education of our children, but, in fact, hinder it.”

“Gordon went well,” said George Warner of the Schodack Central School Board, referring to Assemblyman Gordon, whose district includes much of Rensselaer County as well as all the towns along Columbia County’s northern border. Other members of the committee echoed that sentiment. Fred Hutchinson, of the Chatham School Board, said that the talk with Mr. Gordon was a positive conversation. Assemblyman Gordon, who caucuses with the Democratic majority in the Assembly, told the committee that they represented 60,000 people combined.

Part of the committee’s agenda was a request to reduce the amount of paperwork required by the state. Senator Saland said that he pushed forward a bill that would have addressed those concerns when he was chairman of the Senate Education Committee. He told the group the bill passed the Senate when it was controlled by the GOP but has been stalled in the Assembly.

The group met with Senator MacDonald’s chief of staff to discuss the issues.

In their meeting with Mr. Molinaro, he expressed concern about the special education reforms the local group has proposed as part of its legislative agenda.

Board members said they were interested in taking the issues to the federal government, especially looking at federal assistance with special education costs. “It’s a laudable social goal, but it shouldn’t be paid for by property taxes, it should be paid for by society,” said Mr. Warner about the high cost of special education aid in the state. He said New York pays more on education per-student than any other state.

“I think public education is at great risk in this country,” said Ichabod Crane board member Regina Rose. Board members are all in the thick of creating their own school budgets for the coming school year. Governor Paterson is proposing major cuts in state aid and recently delayed some payments to school systems for the current year. Board members and administrators will be looking into cuts in staffing and programs.

“The urgency is there for us because we are looking at the numbers,” said Mr. Hutchinson of changes the group has called for at the state and federal levels. But he and other board members agreed that now they need to focus on their own school district budgets.

“Until this whole [budget] cycle happens this is going to be timely,” said John Wapner, president of the Chatham School Board of the legislative agenda.

The members of the county school board committee say they want to focus on outreach to other boards in the county. The Germantown, New Lebanon and Taconic Hills boards did not sign off on the group’s legislative agenda.

Mr. Warner, the representative from Schodack, said that he was still planning to push a legislative agenda.

The Ichabod Crane and Schodack school districts applied for a “functional consolidation study” grant designed to save money by sharing certain costs, but the districts’ application was rejected by the state Education Department. Mr. Warner said that the districts are looking into the reasons why.

To contact reporter Emilia Teasdale email eteasdale@columbiapaper.com.

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