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Superintendents: Cuomo's budget a "disaster"

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Albany/HV: Superintendents: Cuomo's budget a "disaster"
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The governor's proposal calls for just $608 million more in education aid; districts statewide were hoping for $1.9 billion. Geoff Redick reports.

SCHENECTADY, N.Y. -- For 27 years, Schenectady High School Choir Teacher Krista Hawk has been seated behind a classroom piano, teaching the district's students how to sing. But in recent times, Hawk has had to face the music: budget cuts are decimating her department.

"We lost more staff here last year than ever," she said. "The music department was hit really hard, as well as the art program. Some of the most energetic teachers are no longer a part of our department."

While Schenectady High School is the proud home to the John Sayles School of the Arts, those sorts of cultural classes are not actually mandated by the state. As a result, they're always eligible to be cut back, or cut out. Now, with the school district proposed to receive very little additional aid under Governor Cuomo's State Budget Plan, Hawk is bracing for more potential cutbacks.

"I feel that we are just at a skeletal minimum right now," said Hawk, who doesn't fault the school district for a problem she knows is beyond control. "I just don't know what else we can do."

It's a similar question for district superintendent Larry Spring: what else is there to cut from the budget? The governor's budget proposal calls for just $608 million to be added to education aid statewide. That translates to little more than three percent growth in state education funding, a number Spring calls unsustainable.

"Athletics, dance, even some basic educational programs: all of these things are very much on the table," Spring said on Wednesday, speaking at a news conference hosted by the Alliance for Quality Education.

Alongside the superintendents for Cohoes and Guilderland, Spring criticized the governor's plan to fund a Pre-K expansion and more after-school programs, insisting those priorities are taking away from basic K-12 education.

"I think that it's an outrage," said Spring. "I think that folks in this state should be very angry."

Spring has been angry for awhile: he and the district lodged a civil rights complaint against New York State last year. It accuses the state of disproportionately aiding the different school districts, and directing important money away from minority-dominated urban schools.

"Our attendance goes up to almost 100 percent in the five final days each month before government benefit checks come out, because we offer free breakfast and free lunch to students," Spring said. "Our kids are hungry."

Along with fellow superintendents and the Alliance for Quality Education, the Schenectady City School District is demanding a greater share of aid for 2014-2015. If it doesn't come through, and costly state mandates continues, basic educational programs may be drawn back.

"For example: it's a state law how many minutes of physical education we have to provide," said Spring. "But there is no law or regulation on how much reading we have to provide, or even that we have to provide reading at all."

Or, of course, music which leaves an entire department at Schenectady High School on-edge.

"We have more needs than ever," said Krista Hawk before returning to her classroom. "But the pot of money is shrinking."

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