Elia: 'I am not interested in approving your budgets'

by David Kraus

On Board Online • February 19, 2018

By David Kraus
Special Correspondent

Amid myriad potential financial headaches facing school board members this year, Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia says she would like to ease at least one.

"I want to go on record. I am not interested in approving your budgets," Elia told board members at NYSSBA's annual Capital Conference.

"I don't want to be in a position where I have to look at these budgets and say yes or no. That's your job. Just do it well, and we will all be happy."

She was referring to Gov. Andrew Cuomo's proposal that local school budgets might need to be certified by state budget and education officials to ensure equitable distribution of resources among individual schools.

Elia said the State Education Department is working to develop a reporting template that can help local school leaders assess the distribution of their resources at the school level for themselves and comply with financial transparency provisions of the state's Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) accountability plan.

"It will be the same for every school and every district across New York State," Elia said.

Elia's conversation with board members was among several highlights as nearly 200 school board members and superintendents gathered in Albany for the Capital Conference Feb. 11-12. The annual event gave members an opportunity to meet in person, network and coordinate lobbying efforts on behalf of students and districts.

"No one wins the Super Bowl by running one play or playing in one game," NYSSBA President William Miller said in his opening remarks. "It is the culmination of a yearlong effort. The same is true with your work as advocates."

NYSSBA's Governmental Relations team discussed key issues for New York State schools this legislative session. The wide-ranging briefing on budget and policy issues covered subjects including the proposal that some districts be required to submit building-level spending plans for approval by the Division of the Budget and State Education Department.

Also discussed:

"Many of you will ask me, 'What's the real priority, what's the real order?'" said Director of Governmental Relations Julie Marlette. "I can tell you what our number 1, 2, and 3 are. However, our number 3 may be your number 1. That's something you need to decide for your district. What's most important to you may be a little bit different than what's most important to the next group. Your work complements our work. Your work brings our positions to life."

A reporters' roundtable highlighted behind-the-scenes issues that affect the budget process in Albany. Liz Benjamin of Spectrum News' "Capital Tonight" program moderated the discussion, which featured Keshia Clukey, education reporter for POLITICO New York and Monica Disare of Chalkbeat New York.

Benjamin led off the session by reminding the audience that the unexpected can always happen in state politics. She said she has seen more uncertainty this year than at any time in 20 years of covering capital politics.

"I have never seen a budget this amorphous this late in the game. But, apparently, now a Law and Order (television show) actress is running against John Faso, so anything can happen!" she said. She was referring to the newly announced campaign of Actress Diane Neal, who is running as an independent against Faso, the Republican incumbent representing the 19th Congressional District.

Many issues could push education out of the spotlight this year, Benjamin said. That includes non-legislative issues, such as sexual harassment allegations against Jeff Klein, who leads the Senate's Independent Democratic Conference. Discussion of initiatives such as the governor's Women's Health and Well-Being proposals also could distract from school funding issues, she said.

"Rarely have you seen a budget where education has claimed such a low role," said Benjamin. "If your budget area gets punted until the end, things can happen very fast and the result can be bad."

While panel members said there is widespread recognition of the need to revise the state's out-of-date foundation aid formula, prospects for that happening this year are slim. According to Clukey, "The conversation is all about the money." She has heard little discussion of updating the formula that determines the distribution of foundation aid.

Benjamin agreed: "I don't see a road to make that happen."

The dinner speaker was Regent Lester W. Young Jr. He spoke about the need to make a measurable difference in the lives of boys and young men of color and the state's ongoing efforts to provide support for that goal through the My Brother's Keeper initiative.

The effort begun by President Obama has spread to more than 300 communities across the country. New York is the only state to support the idea through state legislation, with more than $40 million in funding to date, according to Young.

Young emphasized the need to devote resources to programs that provide role models and leadership training to students in historically underserved populations.

"When young people have the access they need, when they have the opportunities they need, then they do well, he said.

NYSSBA Executive Director Timothy G. Kremer said that many of the rules imposed by state government or long-established in teachers' contracts are ill-suited for the realities of running a public school system today.

"What is taught, how it is taught, when it is taught, where it is taught, by whom it is taught," said Kremer, "are all prescribed by law, regulations and contractual agreements that were fashioned years ago when we lived in a different world."

That's why advocacy has to be married with a local effort to articulate what policies are needed to help students succeed, he said.

"When you go back home," Kremer told attendees, "sit down with the rest of your own team, including students, faculty, parents, and community members, for an honest conversation about your school district's priorities going forward."

He added: "You cannot afford to resist the transformational change brought on by new technologies and culture-shaping social movements that are occurring almost overnight. Embrace these new realities."

Senior Writer Cathy Woodruff contributed to this story.

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