Hundreds decry proposed school cuts

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The Rome school district’s severe financial crunch for its proposed 2019-20 budget triggered a large turnout for the Board of Education meeting, including a rally beforehand that was followed by several speakers during the meeting itself.

About 300 people including many teachers along with community members carried signs and chanted in protest of state financial aid shortfalls that are a key part of the budget issues, at a gathering in front of Strough Middle School Thursday night.

They then proceeded into the board meeting in the school’s auditorium, where 15 speakers addressed the board including many urging that various budget cuts be avoided. Among potential reductions protested by speakers who included teachers, parents and students were modified sports; AIS (academic intervention services) teachers; the Forever Growing pre-K special education program; the Hillside Work-Scholarship Connection program for Rome Free Academy students; and after-school activities including clubs.

The board will “work as hard as we can for the entire community” regarding its further review of the proposed budget, board President Paul Fitzpatrick said after speakers concluded. The board will “do the best we can with what we have” plus any further financial assistance it may receive, he said, adding “this fight is not over yet.”

After the meeting, school district Superintendent Peter C. Blake said his “gut feeling” is that the final budget will have clubs, modified sports and elementary school librarians, although they are part of the current proposed cuts. He also said there may be “significant changes to the proposed reductions to pre-K and AIS.”

“The community speaks loudly,” Blake observed. Among factors that could lessen the potential cuts, he said during the meeting he is optimistic that the school district could “see $2-$2.5 million more” in state financial aid than is now proposed once the state budget is finalized. He also noted after the meeting that the district has more money still available in its fund balance/savings, although he has cautioned that the district should not fully deplete that amount; his March 7 presentation cited a total projected fund balance of about $7 million, and about $2.46 million is currently allocated to help balance the budget.

The budget difficulties include the need for about $10 million in reductions from what the 2019-20 spending plan would include if all of the current 2018-19 expenses and programs were maintained, Blake explained in his budget presentation. The gap is due largely to state financial aid not being funded at appropriate levels based on state funding formulas that are not being followed, he said.

The proposed 2019-20 budget of $114.67 million, down from the current 2018-19 spending plan of $117.9 million, calls for reductions of about 115 staff positions through attrition and layoffs; Blake estimated there could about 70 layoffs, including about 50 teachers. Among proposed program cuts are all modified sports; the Forever Growing program; pre-K for 3-year-olds; the Hillside Works-Scholarship program; essentially all clubs; and all field trips.

The rally before the meeting included a chant of "our kids deserve their fair share but Cuomo does't care," referring to the governor's proposed state budget including state aid for the Rome school district. Rome Teachers Association President Robert Wood, using a megaphone, asked "what are we here for?" and the crowd answered "fair funding from the state. He also asked "why are we here?" and the crowd answered "because we care."

Wood told the group "we need to do something to stop it....need to support each other....We have to fight against the state....Rome's not the only district being short-changed." He also spoke during the board meeting, commenting it is "very clear....The problem lies in Albany."

Blake praised the efforts of state Sen. Joseph Griffo and Assemblywoman Marianne Buttenschon in helping the district express its concerns to the state including meetings with legislative committees.

Griffo in a statement today said he has met with Blake "on multiple occasions since the issue was first brought to my attention." He said he has secured meetings between school district officials and Senator Shelley Mayer, who chairs the state Senate committee on education. He commented "these meetings have been a direct appeal to the uniqueness of the issue facing the Rome City School District and how best to resolve it through the state budget process." He added he and Buttenschon are "working to draw attention to this matter and will continue to advocate for the district.”

Among speakers during the board meeting:

• Teacher Chrstina Steurrys suggested that the board consider "a little higher" tax increase to assist the budget. It now proposes a 3.96 local property tax levy increase, compared to a 4.06 percent increase allowed under state tax-cap formulas. She also conveyed some concerns from students including about the proposed modified sports cuts.

• Charles Fuco of Griffiss Drive said "I don't believe it should be on the taxpayers' back" and, referring to Albany, added "go after them to get the money.

• Chris Irvin of Maple Street spoke about how his son benefited from AIS and called for "some other alternatives we could look at." He objected to PILOT (payments-in-lieu-of-taxes) programs that provide tax breaks for businesses. The school district previously has protested such agreements, but has no direct say in them.

The budget proposes cutting 47 AIS positions, which Blake said involves all AIS elementary teachers. He said classroom teachers would provide the services, which is "not the preferred method/practice" but added "unless funding changes. the program will have to be reorganized." Such services are delivered differently at the secondary-grade level, he added.

• Kelli Rutledge of Beartown Road spoke of how the Forever Growing program helped her child. She emphasized the importance to "help special needs children when they are little, to give them a fighting chance."

• The impact of the Hillside program, which seeks to improve graduation rates for at-risk students, was praised by RFA students Brianna Wheeler and Jose Santiago, as well as parent Amy Arcuri of Taft Avenue. Wheeler said it has helped her mentally and academically, while Santiago said that before he was in the program he was "barely passing" but he now is set to graduate with honors. Arcuri was "proud to say" that her daughter is graduating this year "after she wanted to quit for so many years."

• RFA student John George, president of the school's Student Association, discussed the importance of after-school clubs and organizations, calling them an "integral part" of the school and extremely beneficial for students.

The school board is scheduled to adopt a proposed budget by April 23. It would be subject to district voters' approval in a May 21 election.

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