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Leaders must prioritize education

March 29, 2011

This is an open address to our governmental leaders. While it starts at the top with Gov. Cuomo, it certainly doesn't stop there. Rather, it's to all our state and federal leaders who for the past several years have turned a blind eye to the real issues that are plaguing our state and our economy.

For the sake of disclosure, I'd like to acknowledge that I am a public school teacher who has worked in a suburban council district for 18 years. I have been a resident of the Mayfield Central School District for 16 years, and am extremely concerned about the impact the cuts will have on the education of our children. This dual perspective has allowed me the benefit of seeing the budget process from both sides of the picture. As a taxpayer, I can appreciate the importance of taking a fiscally responsible approach to funding education. As a teacher, I can see how essential it is to provide the necessary dollars to fund the many enriching programs our schools provide. This is especially important in a smaller district like Mayfield, where the school is the very lifeblood of the community.

I'd also like to state that not only am I strongly opposed to these cuts, I hold our state and federal leaders responsible for not doing more if a state budget containing a more than $1 billion decrease in education aid is passed. Gov. Cuomo proposed a $1.5 billion decrease, but a deal reached Sunday would restore $272 million.

In a recent televised address, our governor accused the school districts of playing "political games" by warning the public of the dire consequences of the second straight year of extreme education cuts. The truth is these cuts will hurt existing programs in districts across the state. This is not a Chicken-Little scenario either. While the sky may not be falling per se, the bottom is dropping out of district programs that allow for smaller class sizes, unique scholastic opportunities, and enriching arts, music and sports activities. At the rate we are going, it won't be long before schools no longer offer anything but the very basic educational opportunities. Ironically, in an attempt to make us more economically solid, we are compromising our children's future by limiting their ability to compete in the global marketplace. If these cuts are allowed, the long-term impact on education will be devastating.

What's interesting is that there seems to be no accountability anywhere with this. The incident that brought us to this mess bordered on criminal, and the only possible resolution to the problem ate up precious tax dollars. These tax dollars were used to save the country from the consequences of private-industry failures and apparently to support multimillion-dollar severance packages for the very executives whose malfeasance created the problem. However, no one seems to be acknowledging that connection. Instead, the general attitude seems to be to blame the districts for the crisis we are in now. There seems to be a general battle cry of "Freeze teacher salaries!" or "Require more contributions to health care!" or "Do more with less! That's what the private sector does."

However, I beg to differ with this approach.

To clarify things, this crisis erupted after we (the taxpayers) sunk $800 billion into the private sector to bailout the failed banking industry. This is an industry that knowingly allowed for the creation of bad loans and the extension of bad credit. We bailed them out with money that would've originally been available to fund education, health care, public works and other necessary elements of society. It wasn't meant to clean up after greedy executives. These people knew exactly what they were doing. They collected their fees upfront after making bad loans. They hadn't a worry about how these debts would be repaid. They also extended lines of credit to people they knew could not afford to pay this money back. These people are now saddled with high interest payments or are facing bankruptcy. To make matters even worse, they took these bad loans and packaged them together with good loans - like our mortgages - and then sold them back to us (and others) through our retirement plans. This is what led to the mess on Wall Street which in turn caused the near-collapse of the world economy. Yet, because powerful private industries have done such a good job muddying the waters and distracting us from what has really happened, people honestly think that freezing the salaries of teachers - for whom the national salary average is approximately $48,000 - is the answer to this problem.

Now, if we wanted to be petty, we could make a stink and ask why this questionable behavior was allowed to go on for so long. Maybe we'd point to previous leaders and possibly our two previous attorneys general and ask why they didn't stop this sooner. But what good would that do? The damage is done.

Our focus now should be to recoup that money as quickly as we can without penalizing our children for the mistakes of greedy private-sector executives and inattentive governmental leaders who failed to avert this crisis.

In order to rectify the situation, we need a consistent and unified effort to prioritize education and our children's futures. It is time for our state and federal leaders to stand up for the rights of students, teachers, property owners and constituents everywhere who are hoping for a better tomorrow. Decimating school programs like this is the equivalent of a corporation cutting out its entire research and development programs. I can't imagine a company like GE doing something like that. A move of this nature would be beyond stupid for any business or industry. However, our leaders appear to be standing by and letting this happen to our educational system. Our leaders need to stop blaming teacher salaries and alleged "waste and abuse" as the culprit for this mess. Instead, they should take a look in the mirror and wonder what culpability they possess for being asleep at the wheel while the housing market and credit industry spun out of control in their very own back yard. And, if I can note this, the corruption took place under the watchful eyes of the "Sheriff of Wall Street," former Gov. Eliot Spitzer, and his successor, who happens to be our current governor, Andrew Cuomo.

Our state leaders - in this case, Sen. Hugh Farley and Assemblyman Marc Butler - should demand a reallocation of the money in our budget to fund education completely. It is also time for U.S. Sens. Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, and U.S. Rep. Bill Owens (as well as other congressmen across the state) to stand up in Washington and demand that education be prioritized. Our government was pretty quick to hand out the $800 billion. Perhaps it's time our leaders demand some of that money back so it can be reinvested in the education of our children, which will result in a brighter and more ethical future for this country.

Joan Scannell, a guest columnist, lives in Mayfield.



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