Give us data, not letters

04/29/2010 12:00 AM |

Southold Superintendent David Gamberg (right) dumps out letters written by North Fork residents to Assemblyman Marc Alessi and Sen. Kenneth LaValle asking them to push for a revised state aid formula. Other school officials present Friday at Mr. Alessi’s Calverton office were (from left) Greenport Superintendent Michael Comanda, Riverhead school board president Angela DeVito and Mattituck-Cutchogue board members Lynne Krauza and Jeff Smith.

Assemblyman Marc Alessi (D-Shoreham) turned the tables on North Fork educators who had come to his Calverton office on Friday to present letters asking the state to use a new formula for distributing aid to schools.

The assemblyman asked the representatives of North Fork schools to gather the data needed to make their case to legislators from elsewhere in the state, people who might not share their views. He particularly encouraged them to reach out to upstate lawmakers and their constituents, who also are being shortchanged when it comes to state aid — albeit for different reasons than those at work on the North Fork.

“We need to establish that everybody has a vested interest in renegotiating the formula,” Mr. Alessi said. “Anybody off Long Island sees us as rich people that don’t want to pay their taxes,” he said.

The educators — representing Riverhead, Mattituck-Cutchogue, Southold and Greenport school districts — came to deliver more than 2,600 letters to Mr. Alessi and State Sen. Kenneth LaValle (R-Port Jefferson), who was at the meeting. The letters were mostly handwritten, from constituents across the North Fork asking for a change in the way state aid is distributed.

They will be added to thousands of other letters from Suffolk and Nassau County written as part of the One Island One Voice campaign that has been going on for several months.

But the legislators need more than anecdotal evidence to present to their upstate and New York City colleagues when they return to Albany, Mr. Alessi said.

“The real enemy is New York City,” Mr. LaValle said, encouraging the educators not to make their fight an upstate-downstate struggle for money. He wrote the existing formula, he said, and in doing so he tried to find the right balance between revenues from the state income tax and from local property taxes.

Given the current financial crunch, he questioned whether schools will be able to sustain the level of educational services they have been offering. Pointing to New Jersey, where voters in many districts turned down school budgets two weeks ago, Mr. LaValle said, “The die has been cast. You reach a point where the costs are not sustainable,” he said.

That led Southold Superintendent David Gamberg, the man who started the One Island One Voice campaign, to insert the word “consolidation” into the discussion. Education is changing, he said, and while it could cost him his job, he added, he believed that brick and mortar schools could eventually become a thing of the past.

He pointed to the existence of North Fork United Schools, a group of school districts’ representatives from Southold and Riverhead that has been studying how to consolidate services to save money.

What the districts are looking for equality in how the burden is shared, said Riverhead school board member Ann Cotten-DeGrasse.

Long Islanders need to explain why it costs an average of $22,000 to educate a student here while the statewide average is $16,000. Mr. Alessi said.

The cost of living is higher here, which makes it necessary to pay higher teacher and staff salaries, said Lynne Krauza, a Mattituck-Cutchogue Board of Education member.

New York City doesn’t have to pay transportation costs that are mandated here because of the rural character of Long Island, said Southold school board president Judi Fouchet. The MTA has given free transportation to city students, but faced with its own fiscal crisis, will be passing on that cost to students in September.

Three other issues emerged in the discussion: the costs of special education, charter schools and unfunded mandates.

What the two legislators said they wanted was a breakdown of what constitutes an unfunded mandate and an underfunded mandate.

“I think we have a strong voice if we deal with Long Island’s facts,” Mr. Alessi said.

“We don’t get a lot of state money, but the state tells local districts a lot about what they have to do,” Ms. Fouchet said.

All agreed that great strides had been made in providing special education, but the local representatives said they wanted the state to bear more of the cost to help equalize the burden.

Charter schools, meant to provide competition for public schools with the aim of improving educational overall, are costing the districts more than they can bear, the educators said. The $16,000 tuition Riverhead public schools pay to Riverhead Charter School for each student is more than it would cost the district to educate those students, said Riverhead school board president Angela DeVito. What’s more, the charter schools aren’t required to conduct audits or meet other requirements that public schools are mandated to do, she said. She and her colleagues would like a more even playing field, she said.

He agreed to continue the dialogue with the group at the June 5 North Fork United Schools meeting at Cutchogue East Elementary School.

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