To promote tourism in upstate New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo hosted the 2014 Winter Challenge in Lake Placid this past weekend. He brought along quite a crew: about 400 state and elected officials, staff and some people who just love the great outdoors in winter. Events included curling, ice hockey, ice skating, toboggan, alpine skiing at Whiteface Mountain, bobsledding and cross-country skiing on a sunny weekend day.
One event he didn’t plan on was a demonstration. It was staged outside the Olympic Arena by a group of teachers from Lake Placid, Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake, where schools are suffering from ongoing cuts from state aid, worsened by the Gap Elimination Adjustment.
Saranac Lake Central School Teachers Association Co-Presidents Melissa DeVit and Don Carlisto, along with Vice President Ellen Yousey, organized the demonstration outside the arena while the governor was inside.
“About 25 members from Lake Placid, Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake chanted and held signs for about an hour, calling on the governor to get rid of GEA,” DeVit said.
Beginning in the 2009-2010 school year, the state started using GEA to help the state fill its revenue shortfall. How does it do this? It deducts an amount from each school district’s state aid allocation. Union members and parents in district, already strapped by less state aid and by the property tax cap are angry that the state is shifting its costs to local school districts through GEA, especially at a time when the governor predicts that state budget will carry a surplus.
Many groups are officially getting on the bus in opposition to the GEA. Three days before Cuomo’s visit, the Franklin County Legislature in upstate New York passed a resolution urging the state legislature to end GEA and refund the money projected to be cut to school districts under that program, according to the Adirondack Daily Enterprise. School boards in Tupper Lake, Saranac Lake and Lake Placid have all passed resolutions that call on lawmakers to kick GEA to the curb.
As NYSUT has often pointed out, the Franklin County Legislature stated that adequate state funding to public schools is constitutionally mandated. But the property tax cap — which limits what districts can raise in tax levies — along with unfunded and underfunded mandates, mandated implementation of Common Core standards and the expense of teacher and administrative performance reviews are hurting education.
In Saranac Lake, for example, district officals told the Press-Republican that even if partial GAP diminishment happens this year, the district will still lose $866,836 in state aid and is looking at a $1.2 million budget deficit.
Forty positions have already been eliminated, purchasing budgets have been reduced, field trips have been cut, and two schools have been closed. Those properties are being leased and help generate revenue. Reserve funding has been used. And right now, music and athletic programs are on the block.
It’s a story that echoes across the state, from the Adirondack Mountains to the Catskills, from the Hudson Highlands to the Shawangunks, bouncing from one mountain range to another.
As a native of the Tri-Lakes, I appreciate the promotion of tourism and winter sports in my home stomping grounds. Gov. Cuomo announced the launch of the ‘I Ski NY’ Bus, a bus line to 13 upstate ski mountains, including Whiteface and Gore, from New York City and Toronto.
His news was welcome to many who were there at the Winter Challenge. The Tri-Lakes is a place of beauty and rich natural resource. I happen to know a few relatives who won cross-country events at the Winter Challenge (teacher Sarah Bencze and retired teacher Jim Frenette).
But I also know teachers here, and across the state, who would like the governor to take on another challenge: Eliminate GEA.
That’s a bus worth getting on board.