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GEA clouds a bright budget deal

On Board Online • April 14, 2014

By  Brian Fessler
Governmental Relations Representative

The approved state budget boosts formula-based school aid by $1.1 billion – the largest dollar increase in state aid since the Great Recession and a 5.4 percent improvement over 2013-14.

It’s also a $500 million boost over what Gov. Andrew Cuomo originally proposed in formula aid for the 2014-15 budget year.

But school districts will be denied $1 billion of formula-based school aid due to continuation of the Gap Elimination Adjustment (GEA).

Total school aid will be $21.8 billion. The budget also included many policy initiatives, including action on prekindergarten, the Common Core, inBloom and charter schools (see articles entitled, "The non-financial budget: 2014 state budget heavy on policy content"   and  "Is state education aid distribution getting fairer? Complex formulas hide the answer, experts say").

The largest single portion of the billion-plus dollar increase was $602 million in GEA restoration. The budget uses more than a dozen individual formulas to determine the allocation of the restoration dollars, and all school districts will see at least some of their GEA reduced through the use of these funds.

“Elimination of the GEA remains a top NYSSBA priority,” said NYSSBA President Lynne Lenhardt. NYSSBA is part of a coalition of education groups that have sued the state claiming the GEA violates the state Constitution.

The non-financial budget: 2014 state budget heavy on policy content

On Board Online • April 14, 2014

By Cathy Woodruff
Senior Writer

For governments, budgets can function as the ultimate policy-setting documents. That which gets funded, gets done.

But New York’s 2014-15 budget is more like a piece of omnibus legislation, setting policy, with or without associated spending, on a number diverse topics. (Omnibus is derived from Latin and means “for all things.”)

 “I have never seen so much policy content embedded in the budget without financial consequences,” said David A. Little, NYSSBA director of governmental relations. “It’s almost as if they decided that anything identified as a priority, as of this date, would be done all at once in the budget.”

One example: the new budget establishes a season for crossbow hunting, effectively legalizing the sport in New York with scant public debate on the issue.

In the realm of education, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and legislative leaders packed the budget with cost-neutral elements that they characterized as “fixes” for a flawed rollout of Common Core State Standards. They also folded in mechanisms that aim to shape state and local policy related to charter schools, school district mergers, consolidation of services, and student data storage and privacy.

Is state education aid distribution getting fairer? Complex formulas hide the answer, experts say

On Board Online • April 14, 2014

By Cathy Woodruff
Senior Writer

Anyone examining New York’s latest school aid distribution formula for signs of increased fairness is finding a murky picture.

“It’s so convoluted that it’s hard to evaluate,” said Robert N. Lowry Jr., deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents. “It’s far from transparent.”

State aid equity has been an issue for decades in New York. The state’s highest court ruled in 2003 and 2006 that urban children had been denied a sound basic education, as required by the state Constitution, because their schools had been underfunded.

A state plan to improve funding has been derailed for several years by the Gap Elimination Adjustment (GEA), which deducts money from formula-driven aid calculations to help balance other portions of the state budget. The new budget continues to reduce the GEA, but it’s difficult to analyze how the restorations to school districts were distributed.

“It is striking how complicated the GEA restoration has been,” Lowry said. “There’s something like an 18-step formula, and some of those steps help very few districts. There is a simple test of fairness: are you treating similar districts similarly? When you have such complex formulas, it’s hard to make those judgments.”

Reading between the budget lines

On Board Online • April 14, 2014

By Lynne L. Lenhardt
NYSSBA President

Lynne L. LenhardtMore school funding is better, right? Yes, but when it comes to the state budget, there are always devils in the details.

Let’s start with the basics. Most people would say that public education fared well in the recently enacted state budget. School aid increased by $1.1 billion, with much of that funding going toward restorations to the Gap Elimination Adjustment (GEA) and increases in foundation aid. In addition, state lawmakers earmarked $340 million toward prekindergarten programs and adopted a $2 billion “Smart Schools” education bond act that will go to voters this fall. If passed, the act could help fund instructional technology and high-tech school safety projects, as well as space for pre-K programs.

It appears someone has been listening as NYSSBA and others have argued that significant state support is essential for functional and healthy public schools, and that cost-shifting to localities and unfunded mandates must stop.

But bottom-line numbers don’t always tell the full story.

While it is true that lawmakers have recently provided some robust state aid increases to schools, they have also put in place other measures that have had dire consequences for schools.

Annual review of your district’s code of conduct is opportunity to improve school climate

On Board Online • April 14, 2014

By  Courtney Sanik
Policy Consultant

Annually reviewing your district’s code of conduct is not only a legal requirement, but an opportunity for your school board to be sure it is conveying what it expects of students and others on school grounds and at school functions. The code of conduct is considered a board policy and offers a powerful opportunity to communicate messages to the school community about the values of your school district and school climate.

The legal requirements, set forth in section 2801 of the Education Law and commissioner’s regulations (8 NYCRR Section100.2 (l)(2)), involve what needs to be contained in the policy, how it should be developed and adopted, and specific requirements for dissemination.

Your district’s code of conduct can be broken down into 10 general areas including students’ rights and responsibilities, how to report violations, disciplinary procedures and rules for visitors (see sidebar).

Many boards incorporate additional information or policy elements such as a separate section on definitions or information on search, seizure, and interrogations. Some specifically address  corporal punishment. Although NYSSBA’s Policy Department views such elements as desirable if not essential in a comprehensive code of conduct, they are not required.

School boards must also pay attention to requirements regarding  the development of the code of conduct, which boards have the exclusive authority to adopt and amend. However, since 2000, the Safe Schools Against Violence in Education legislation (Project SAVE) has required boards to develop the code in collaboration with student, teacher, administrator, and parent organizations, as well as school safety personnel and other school personnel.

NYSSBA’s Policy Department believes that involving students in this process is an asset.  “In any environment with rules, people are more likely to adhere if they feel that they were represented as the rules were developed,” said Linda Bakst, NYSSBA’s deputy director for policy services.

New Yorkers prominent at national school boards conference

On Board Online • April 14, 2014

By Eric D. Randall

Anne M. Byrne has become the sixth New Yorker to assume the presidency of the National School Boards Association, which advocates for public schools on the federal level and works closely with state and national educational groups on a wide range of issues and initiatives.

Byrne, a member the Nanuet school board in Rockland County for more than 30 years, served as president of NYSSBA in 2004 and 2005.

Byrne was elected for a one-year term as NSBA president during a Delegate Assembly at NSBA’s 74th Annual Conference, held in New Orleans April 5-7.

Meanwhile, two New Yorkers took leadership posts in the national Council of School Attorneys (COSA), which often helps NSBA craft briefs submitted to the U.S. Supreme Court and works with state groups such as the New York State Association of School Attorneys. Greg Guercio of the Long Island firm of Guercio & Guercio was elected chair of COSA, and NYSSBA Deputy Counsel Pilar Sokol was elected secretary-treasurer.

Other New Yorkers prominent at the conference included representatives of Orleans/Niagara BOCES, whose literacy and community outreach project was honored at a luncheon as a grand prize winner of a national contest.

Speakers at the conference included five NYSSBA staff members who spoke on topics ranging from board conflict to the school-to-prison pipeline. 

Fulton event shows value of adaptive sports

On Board Online • April 14, 2014

By George Basler
Special Correspondent

Kyle Evans, 17, remembers the feeling of making his first basket in a game of wheelchair basketball.

“It was, like, sweet,” said Evans, a sophomore at Randolph Academy, a public school for special needs students located near Jamestown. “I thought to myself, ‘I can do this.’”

The game took place in the Fulton City School District near Syracuse, almost 250 miles from Evan’s home. In an event to raise money for adaptive sports equipment, Fulton teachers and staff played against a team composed of disabled athletes, including Evans, and volunteers from Move Along Inc., a non-profit organization that promotes athletics for persons with disabilities in upstate New York.

Players used special wheelchairs with slanted wheels that allow quick turns, making the game faster and safer.

Evans sat out the first half and found himself on the court at the beginning of the second.

He was nervous. He was paralyzed in an accident a year ago, and this was one of many new experiences he’s had since then.

“I just wanted to play,” Evans said. “I didn’t know if I could do it, but I wanted to give it a shot and see what happens.”

Soon he was immersed in the game. He was so focused that he didn’t even hear or notice the crowd in the gymnasium of Fulton Junior High School.

Despite parental misgivings over testing, law leaves little discretion for districts

On Board Online • April 14, 2014

By the New York State
Association of School Attorneys

While standardized testing has never been popular among students, it usually has been viewed as necessary by adults. However, recent controversy over state assessments in New York State has led parents to have their children refuse to participate.

Although parents and the media may describe test boycotting as “opting out,” there is no legal mechanism for a student to be excused from a state assessment, with or without parental permission. Nor does any law or regulation allow a school district to reduce its participation in the state’s testing program.

Nevertheless, students can avoid assessments by being absent, by refusing to take a test or not making any effort to complete a test as a political protest. This article will describe your district’s legal requirements and options regarding administration of state assessments.  

Objections to testing
The state Board of Regents designed the state’s assessment program to track student proficiency levels and inform better instructional practices, as well as fulfill requirements associated with receipt of federal Race to the Top funding.

Critics say that the state’s testing program has reduced instructional time, increased anxiety among students and stifled academic freedom. Teachers have argued these tests fail to effectively measure student achievement and should not be used in teacher evaluations. Additional complaints include that testing is of an unreasonable duration, is too expensive, marginalizes English Language Learners and students with disabilities, and serves the interests of for-profit companies that have partnered with the State Education Department (SED).

As a result, school districts statewide have seen increasing numbers of students refusing (on their own or through parent writings) to participate in the administration of these required assessments. Some parents keep their children out of school on test days, which, depending on the circumstances, can raise issues of whether the absence is properly excused. If a student is absent on a test day, he or she will be given the test on the test make-up day unless the student is also absent on the make-up day.  When students attend but refuse to participate in testing, school officials have to decide where to put them and what instructions to give them during testing hours.

Court upholds ban on use of school facilities for religious worship after school hours

On Board Online • April 14, 2014

By Pilar Sokol
Deputy General Counsel

Editor’s Note: Despite the court ruling described below, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said April 8 that he will permit faith groups to continue to use public school buildings. “I just want to emphasize that any organization of any faith can apply for space,” de Blasio said. “Everyone is entitled to their opinion, and the previous administration had a different opinion.”

May a school district allow the use of its school facilities by outside groups for the conduct of religious worship services after school hours? Can it disallow such use? Finding definitive answers to such questions is difficult because they involve complex constitutional issues that relate to the free exercise of religion, freedom of speech and the separation of church and state. In a closely watched case, a federal appellate court with jurisdiction over New York recently upheld the validity of a New York City school regulation that precludes the use of school facilities for religious worship services.

In consultation with their school attorney, school districts can refer to this decision for guidance if presented with a request for use of their facilities for religious worship. The regulation at issue in The Bronx Household of Faith v. Bd. of Educ. of the City of N.Y. allows the use of school facilities outside of school hours by outside organizations and individuals, free of any rent charges, and with permission from the district. But it expressly provides that no permit may be granted either for (1) “the purpose of holding religious worship services” or (2) “otherwise using a school as a house of worship.”

EngagedVoices: Views from professionals working to improve our schools

On Board Online • April 14, 2014

By  John King, Jr.
Commissioner of Education

Many New Yorkers – educators, parents, school board members, legislators, community leaders, business leaders and others – have been working hard to support the changes in instruction necessary for all students to be ready for college, career and life. As often happens in the course of a major change, attention sometimes focuses on those who doubt the value of the changes.  Unfortunately, this means the good work that so many are doing is going unrecognized.

That’s why we recently launched a blog called “EngagedVoices” on our professional development website EngagedVoices gives educators a chance to share their perspectives from the field – the successes, challenges, ideas and struggles – so that we can learn from each other and, together, help every student succeed.

Here are a few examples of the excellent thoughts you’ll find there.

Rochelle Jensen, a fourth-grade teacher in the Rome City School District, writes about the jitters she felt when she first began teaching the Common Core, and how it has helped improve her teaching and her students’ learning:  I’m not going to mislead anyone … I had a huge learning curve. I wasn’t comfortable teaching this way but I had confidence it would work and wanted to get better. What kept me going? My students! Last year, after only teaching the first module, I heard students independently talking about the narratives and looking for evidence to support their conclusions. They were looking back to the text and re-reading so that they could better understand the content. My students’ writing improved and I was now reading clearly written, evidence-based student essays with a main idea and supporting details ... I knew I was onto something bigger and better than I ever used before and I was hooked.

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