AURELIUS — Cayuga County-area school officials, education advocates and state representatives expressed their frustration at a legislative forum Saturday, saying they are continually plagued by school budget concerns year after year without substantial positive action from the state.
State Sen. Pam Helming, State Sen. Robert Antonacci, State Sen. Rachel May and State Assemblyman Brian Manktelow attended the event at the Cayuga-Onondaga BOCES building in Aurelius, in which legislators, school superintendents and others discussed the impact of Gov. Andrew Cuomo's 2019-2020 budget proposal.
Auburn Enlarged City School District Superintendent Jeff Pirozzolo, Cato-Meridian School District Superintendent Terry Ward, Skaneateles Central School District Lynda Quick, Moravia Central School District Superintendent John Birmingham and BOCES District Superintendent Brian Hartwell were among the school officials in attendance.
Dr. Rick Timbs, executive director of the Statewide School Finance Consortium, gave a presentation on the budget proposal. He said that education isn't funded enough to be spread properly to each district and that a lot of the data used to determine aid are at least a decade old.
Timbs said these issues have lingered for years.
"We have growing frustration that actually nothing is being solved here," Timbs said after the forum. "It's same old, same old."
Helming noted this is her third time attending the forum.
"I've been hearing pretty much the same story now for three years with no real answers from Albany, so I'm a bit embarrassed by that," she said. "Rick always gives us an outline on what needs to be done. I feel like that falls on deaf ears, really."
Helming said she looks forward to "meeting with my individual school districts."
"I always find that very, very helpful, to sit down one-on-one, to hear what your specific needs are and to tackle those as best we can," she said.
May, the sole Democratic legislator in the room, said she learned a great deal from the event, even though Cayuga County is not within her district. May, of Syracuse, was elected to the newly Democrat-led state Senate in November.
"I really want to learn more about what the issues are in all of central New York, because I really do feel like I'm the advocate for central New York in the new majority," she said.
"Education matters a lot to me, and as I'm looking at the budget I'm realizing there's a lot I don't understand," May said. "So I learned a lot here."
Pirozzolo told the legislators he appreciates their support and said he feels there is a serious lack of state aid for Auburn, Cato-Meridian and Port Byron.
The three are slated to receive the smallest state aid amounts from Cuomo's 2019-20 proposal out of the nine districts that make up the local BOCES. Auburn is set to receive a 2.21 percent state aid boost, going from $41,535,651 to $42,455,278. Cato-Meridian is set for a 2.88 percent increase from $12,742,790 to $13,109,668. Port Byron would see a 0.06 percent increase, or $8,123, under Cuomo's proposal.
"We have so many districts that are being overfunded and continue to get more money than the schools that are underfunded, and it's time to take politics out of the education, because they don't belong there," Pirozzolo said. "The wealthier schools continue to get wealthier while our poorer school districts ... are getting the lowest amount of increases."
Pirozzolo said the state average for spending per student is around $23,500 per student, above Auburn's average of around $17,500 per student. He also referenced cuts the district has made in years past such as the 2011 shutdown of West Middle School and staff cuts. He said the district is seeking guidance on where the district's advocacy efforts should be directed.
"It's frustrating for all of our board members and our community. We go around and speak about it, but nothing changes, and we know that you help us, but we don't know where to go next."
Helming said that she and her fellow legislators advocate for schools despite being Republicans during a time when the Senate is controlled by Democrats.
"I think we continue to advocate just as strongly as we were when we were in the Senate majority."
Charles Borgognoni, executive director of the Central New York School Boards Association, said after the forum that he felt good about how the event went, noting May's appearance at the event despite not officially representing any districts in the area. He said he felt the event carried a sense of bipartisanship.
"No body was looking to one-up anybody else, so from that perspective, it was good."
Manktelow said the information he learned at the forum was helpful. He said he was willing to advocate for schools.
"I'm here to work for you guys. I'm not here to collect a paycheck and sit around," he said.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo wants to crack down on drivers who illegally pass stopped school buses.
One of the proposals in the governor's 2019-20 state budget proposal would allow districts to install stop-arm cameras on school buses. The camera would have the capability of recording a vehicle illegally passing a bus. Using the information from the video, a ticket would be issued to the driver of the vehicle.
The state Division of Budget explained that companies who provide the stop-arm cameras usually agree to install the devices for free. In exchange, the company would receive a portion of the revenue from the fines collected. Such an arrangement would be acceptable under the governor's proposal, the agency noted.
The Division of Budget emphasized that Cuomo's plan to install stop-arm cameras on buses is a public safety proposal. The goal is to change behavior and reduce the number of drivers who illegally pass stopped school buses.
Cuomo believes there is a need for greater enforcement. During the one-day Operation Safe Stop campaign last year, more than 850 tickets were issued to drivers who illegally passed school buses. Two years ago, 1,037 tickets were issued.
"The safety of New York's schoolchildren is our top priority and reckless drivers who put our kids in danger must be held accountable," Cuomo said in a statement.
There is support in the state Legislature for Cuomo's proposal to install stop-arm cameras on buses. State Sen. Cathy Young, a Southern Tier Republican, lauded the plan. She sponsored legislation in the Senate that would allow school districts to install the cameras on buses.
Young, R-Olean, said her bill passed the Senate last year by a 62-0 vote. However, it wasn't considered by the state Assembly.
Other states are already using the technology. Young cited reports that revealed the cameras have reduced the number of violations by as much as 50 percent.
"This is a new session and a new opportunity to finally get this law on the books," she said. "With the governor's support behind this initiative, I am hopeful that 2019 will be the year we act to authorize this lifesaving technology."
Other proposals to bolster school bus safety include requiring students to wear seat belts on buses and increasing the fines for passing a stopped school bus. Cuomo proposed stiffer penalties last year in his budget proposal.
Under existing state laws, a first-time offender faces a fine of between $250 and $400 and/or up to 30 days in jail. A second conviction within a three-year period would result in a fine of between $600 and $750 and/or up to 180 days in jail.
Three or more convictions within a three-year period could lead to a fine of between $750 to $1,000 and/or up to 180 days in jail.
Candidates and voters won't have to wait long to experience the election reforms passed by the state Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
The state Board of Elections released the 2019 political calendar and the primary election date will be Tuesday, June 25. This is a change from prior years when the state and local primary election was held in September. The election reform package included legislation to consolidate the federal primary election, which has been held in June, with the state and local primary.
With the change, the federal, state and local primary election will be held on the fourth Tuesday in June.
The new primary date not only alters when voters will go to the polls, but it will also change when candidates circulate petitions to qualify for the election. Under the new schedule, the petitioning period begins Feb. 26. The deadline to file petitions is April 4.
This is a significant change from past election cycles. Candidates for state and local offices didn't begin circulating petitions until June. The deadline to file petitions was in July.
The general election date is Tuesday, Nov. 5. However, with New York becoming the 38th state to allow early voting, there will be a nine-day period when voters can cast their ballots before Election Day. Early voting was one of the five bills signed into law by Cuomo, and it's set to take effect this year.
For Cayuga County voters, there will be at least one early voting polling place. The county may opt to open other early voting polling locations.
Another busy week ahead for Cuomo, state lawmakers
Cuomo and the Democratic-led state Legislature won't slow down this week.
The Child Victims Act will be considered Monday. Cuomo has said he will sign the revised bill into law.
The legislation increases the statute of limitations for criminal and civil child sex abuse cases. It also includes a one-year "look-back" provision that will allow past victims to pursue civil actions against their abusers.
A package of gun safety bills will receive a vote, too. The measures will include extending the waiting period for gun purchases, a ban on bump stocks and a "red flag" law.
The red flag law will make it possible for guns to be temporarily removed from someone's possession if it's determined they pose a risk to themselves or others.