Cuomo’s Budget Faces Backlash

Bret Apthorpe, superintendent of Jamestown Public Schools, continued to criticize Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Budget Address at a board meeting Tuesday that has garnered much flak from educational leaders and organizations. Apthorpe was open about his disappointment in the minimal foundation aid increase local schools were receiving and called for “fair distribution of funds.” P-J photo by Jordan W. Patterson

Bret Apthorpe, superintendent of Jamestown Public Schools, questioned the fairness of state aid distribution in New York state after Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s $168 billion budget address at a board meeting Tuesday.

“At first glance the governor’s budget sounds romantic,” said Apthorpe, “because it says it’s giving all this money to education, but it’s a budget proposal that’s incredibly nuanced and when you begin to look into the nuances for Jamestown it appears to be about a 1.4 percent (increase) in aid.”

During the meeting the superintendent compared reading the nuances to reading the “fine-print” and the overall increase in aid was determined to be a 1.37 percent increase from last year, compared to an inflation rate of 2.1 percent.

He also pointed to mandates for adopting new learning standards from the state that in the long run will cost the school more money for training, materials and general personnel costs.

The budget address and proposal is not final and the governor will now negotiate with the State Legislator on a final budget.

“We’re hopeful the (state) legislator will either do something about the mandates or adjust the aid to reflect inflation and the mandates of the state government,” Apthorpe said.

The percentage of increases for school districts in Chautauqua County are all below 2 percent besides Bemus Point and Silver Creek who saw a 2.3 percent and a 2.7 percent increase respectively, according to the executive budget on the state’s website.

The superintendent said the focus of local schools and educators should be to educate and inform local legislators about how the budget affects the community.

“It’s just like your home,” he said. “If your costs go up and your expenses go up and your income doesn’t go up, you’ve got to to cut something back.”

Apthorpe said potential cutbacks would be in the interest of students.

“We need look at where we can make reductions that are least harmful to students,” he said.

He said an alternative solution would be to propose an increase in taxes, something he and the board “aren’t interested in.”

“The solution is simple,” Apthorpe said. “It’s fair funding of schools. That’s the simple solution.”

Jasmine Gripper, legislative director for the Alliance for Quality Education, said Cuomo “is attempting to appear generous while perpetuating educational racism and economic inequality.”

She cited the $338 million in foundation aid as being “pitiful” and a display of denying educational justice.

He claimed that each year the educational budget is “fraught” with politics and drama.

“The formula for distribution of aid is not based on demographic needs alone,” he said. “You get a different quality education depending upon where you live in the state and that’s not fair. The New York (State) Constitution identifies a free public education as a constitutional right for every kid and the state needs to develop a formula that fairly distributes aid that provides that same quality education to every student in New York state.”

Apthorpe said 74 percent of the Jamestown Public Schools population currently lives in poverty and are directly affected by the budget.

“The needs of these students are a lot different than the needs of students living wealthy, suburban communities,” he said, “and yet we have the same mandates.”

He called the budget proposal an “annual battle” and a “big political drama” while suggesting a fairer system be developed to distribute state aid evenly throughout the state based on demographics. The superintendent said the current system is “arbitrary and subjective” making it “very political.”

During the board meeting, Apthorpe also called attention to a proposed 2 percent cap on BOCES aid, building aid and transportation aid which he hoped the state legislator would negotiate away during talks with the governor.

Jamestown Public Schools is also currently involved in a lawsuit against the state known as the “small cities schools” lawsuit or “Maisto et al v. State of New York” that dates back over a decade. The case involves the 2007 Foundation Formula Aid after it was frozen for the 2009-10 school year. Apthorpe said the issue at hand is within “the same principle” as the lawsuit.

Stephen Pennhollow, superintendent of Falconer Central School, reiterated what Apthorpe said during a phone interview with The Post-Journal last week and noted that the Foundation Aid Formula needs to be “fair and equitable.”

Pennhollow said that the 1.1 percent increase of the district’s aid is barely enough to cover additional district costs. He said despite the school being fiscally responsible Foundation Aid Formula increases have remained relatively small.

“It’s a difficult process,” Penhollow said. “But we’ll get through it.”