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Small, rural districts weigh in on aid cuts

Minerva Central School District


Copenhagen Central School


Edmeston Central School District


The Governor’s executive budget proposes funding cuts for all school districts in New York state, and presidents at some of the state’s smallest districts have just one question: At what cost?

“We’re bare bones now,” said Robert Kirker, president of the Minerva Teachers Association. “There’s no place to make any more cuts.” Minerva Central School District, a tiny district in the Adirondacks, stands to lose $246,849 in aid, or about 25 percent of its budget.

Leaders in these small districts say that the proposed cuts come at the expense of some of our state’s most vulnerable students.

“We don't have any extra staff in terms of core areas,” Kirker said. “We have one art teacher. We have one music teacher. We have one gym teacher. We have one teacher for each subject area, one teacher for each elementary grade. I suppose we could put two elementary grades together, but we tried that in the past, and it wasn't effective.”

With just 116 students, Minerva has disproportionately high levels of need; 59 percent of district students are economically disadvantaged, and 21 percent of students have disabilities. The district was able to use COVID-19 funds to hire a much-needed counseling staff, a part-time school psychologist, school social worker and school counselor who have been critical to addressing the mounting mental health crisis among teens and children.

“For years, we have had students who had no counseling available to them whatsoever, and now they are finally getting the counseling they need. The concern now is that they are going to lose that,” he said. “We've got people in the schools that are building relationships with students, and I would hate to have that ripped away from them,” he said.

“If these budget cuts go through, those elementary classrooms will all go from having 14 or 15 students to 24 or 25 students.”

~ John Cain, president of the Copenhagen Teachers Association

Rural schools could also see a major jump in class sizes, which could threaten their post-pandemic recovery.

“Pre-COVID we had three teachers per elementary grade level, and then we had to cut that last year. We still have three teachers for our first, second and third graders because they are the ones that need that kind of intense contact the most,” said John Cain, president of the Copenhagen Teachers Association. Cain also chairs NYSUT’s Small and Rural Locals Committee, representing the state’s smallest districts. Tuesday, he and other members of SARL visited state legislators to plead for the restoration of Foundation Aid as part of NYSUT’s Committee of 100.

Cain’s little rural district in the North Country educates 417 students and stands to lose about $82,977 in state aid, or 1.3 percent of its budget. “If these budget cuts go through, those elementary classrooms will all go from having 14 or 15 students to 24 or 25 students.” Increased class sizes could jeopardize the academic performance of Copenhagen students, whose math and ELA test scores have dropped overall since the pandemic and the advent of larger class sizes.

In Edmeston, the proposed cuts would be a little deeper; the district is facing the prospect of losing about $715,223 in aid, or about 12.5 percent less than what was promised. The tiny district in Central New York serves about 345 students, 45 percent of whom are economically disadvantaged and 10 percent of whom have disabilities. Bruce Miller, president of the Edmeston Central Faculty Association worries these cuts would be felt most keenly by students with special needs. “We have two people retiring in the high school, an English teacher and a special education teacher and the superintendent is looking at not replacing one or both of them,” Miller said. “The loss of the special education teacher comes at a time when we are getting more and more students with special needs. We may be small, but these are still essential services for our students.”

School leaders say that there is a fundamental disconnect between the governor’s perception and the realities that exist in classrooms across the state.

“There is a mistaken belief that just because a school loses a few students, they can operate with fewer teachers and services,” said Cain. “The reality is that when they lose teachers, they have to shut down programs that provide services for special needs students and advanced classes for our high achievers. They lose mental health resources. The governor is applying a business model to education, and our schools are not factories, nor are our students simply a product.”

Words | Molly Belmont
Images | El-Wise Noisette