JOHNSTOWN - About 300 educators and students rallied Tuesday to push for change in how state aid is distributed to schools, saying the formula has created inequity between wealthy and poor school districts.
Chants of "save our schools" echoed through the Hamilton-Fulton-Montgomery Board of Cooperative Educational Services campus, while signs with such messages as "Quality of education shouldn't depend on a ZIP code" bobbed through the crowd.
The message local districts are sending to state lawmakers is a demand for revamping the gap-elimination-adjustment formula that educators say punishes poorer and rural schools by diminishing the state aid on which local districts rely heavily.
HFM BOCES Superintendent Patrick Michel emphasized the call is not a quest for higher property taxes.
"The future of this region is under severe jeopardy. We've looked at the projection of what it's going to cost. We need to change the system," Michel said.
The Mayfield High School jazz band performed at the event, led by instrumental music instructor Noel Wing.
Students, teachers and school administrators rally at the HFM BOCES campus in Johnstown Tuesday to protest school-funding formulas that have resulted in reduced aid to local schools.
The Leader-Herald/Bill Trojan
"This is one of the groups that may not be around next year," Wing said.
The Mayfield district, which is facing a $1.7 million budget shortfall, was heavily represented at the rally. The number of potential layoffs there and in such districts as Broadalbin-Perth and Fonda-Fultonville may reach double digits for the next school year. Schools also are facing potential elimination of nonmandated programs, including kindergarten, arts, music, sports and advanced-placement courses.
Mayfield student Kaylee Bumpus said she plays three sports and is worried her school's opportunities will diminish.
"These opportunities make students well rounded and want to come to school every day," Bumpus said. "Without a high-quality education, my choices for college will be severely limited."
Mayfield Superintendent Paul Williamsen emphasized the importance of music, arts and sports, and said Mayfield is twice as poor as the average school in the state, yet it took a hit of $1.7 million the past two years under the gap-elimination-adjustment formula and is due to lose $1.6 million in the next school year.
According to a news release from BOCES, Gov. Andrew Cuomo's proposed budget includes a gap-elimination adjustment that reduces state aid to every district to help fill the deficit. The 15 districts within HFM BOCES are set to lose $16.8 million under the formula in 2012-13.
"They're taking from the poor to give to the rich. It's like a backward Robin Hood situation," said Fonda-Fultonville Superintendent James Hoffman.
Morris Peters, a spokesman for the state Division of Budget, said last March the gap-elimination adjustment was created to take into account student need, district wealth and property taxes when distributing funds. It also offers a "kicker" for districts whose administrative offices are efficient, Peters said.
He said distribution of aid as a percentage of a district's budget might appear unfair because state aid accounts for a smaller percentage of a wealthier district's budget.
As a result, state aid cuts as a percentage of a district's budget will be higher for poorer districts whose budgets rely more heavily on state aid.
"This isn't something new," said Matt Ossenfort, a representative from Assemblyman George Amedore's office, who spoke at the event.
"We're having trouble providing some basic education, and this is one of our top priorities."
The rally is the type of event "that gets attention and gets heard on the second floor," Ossenfort said, referring to Cuomo's office.
The hourlong event featured a variety of speakers, including Mayfield third-grade teacher and digital learning specialist Samantha Mulford-Phillips, who helped organize the rally and is a parent of students in the Broadalbin-Perth district.
"The reduction in state aid has a limited impact on them [wealthier downstate districts] but it has buried our districts," she said. She led the crowd in chants of "Close the gap, restore state aid" and "This is what democracy looks like."
"How can we expect our students to dream and to work hard in school if they don't have anything to work for?" asked St. Johnsville teacher Phoebe Sitterly.
Broadalbin-Perth student Madison Wilcox emphasized education is provided under the state Constitution. He asked that the $250 million Cuomo set aside in competitive grants be awarded to the neediest schools.
Some relief will come from one-time "bullet" grants that are being distributed to Mayfield, Northville, Broadalbin-Perth, Canajoharie, Fonda-Fultonville and Galway schools by the office of Sen. Hugh T. Farley, R-Niskayuna.