Community Rally Against State Education Cuts

MOUNT VERNON – Over 50 community members, students, educators and local representatives lined up on the steps outside Benjamin Turner Academy to protest state education cuts on Friday, March 1.

In Governor Kathy Hochul’s proposed budget, the Mount Vernon City School District would lose $2.9 million in state aid. The rally against that decision was organized by the Westchester-Putnam Central Labor Body.

To protest the cuts, Dr. K. Veronica Smith, Acting Superintendent; Keith McCall, president of the Mount Vernon Federation of Teachers; Warren Mitchell, Board of Education Trustee; Jamaal Bowman, congressman; Shelley Mayer, state senator; J. Gary Pretlow, assemblyman; Nader J. Sayegh, assemblyman; Michael Benedetto, state representative; Dana Levenberg, assemblyman; Matt Slater, assemblyman; MaryJane C. Shimsky, assemblywoman; Steven Otis, assemblyman; Chris Burdick, assemblyman; and George Latimer, county executive; all spoke and expressed disagreement with the governor’s decision.

“I just want to make it clear that these 2.9 million dollars are pivotal to our school district,” said Dr. Smith. “A budget cut of that size would be a major setback for our students and programs, as we are already in the midst of recovery from past financial struggles.”

The Hold Harmless provision was removed for school districts. Hold Harmless ensures that schools receive at least the same amount of state aid as the previous year. As a result, school districts with factors such as declining enrollment are receiving less funding.

The governor also proposed a change to the Foundation Aid formula. Foundation Aid is the primary source of state funding for school districts. The new formula would use a rolling 10-year average (2.4%) of the Consumer Price Index, or inflation. The current rate is 3.8%. While inflation is just a factor in the formula, this change to the formula would result in millions of dollars in reductions of Foundation Aid for many schools in New York, including the Mount Vernon City School District.

“In our schools today, we are providing the social safety net for our communities, “ said Melinda Person, President of New York State United Teachers. “We feed children, we provide mental health services, we support families. We do all of the work to take care of our students so that they get what they need. And the cost of that is part of our education budget. So, when you cut Foundation Aid, you cut our ability to provide basic needs and services to communities.”

About half of the school districts in the state are also facing potential cuts. Federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funding is also set to expire in September 2024, resulting in less federal funding on top of the state cuts.

“2.9 million in cuts is not something that you can actually think of with a clear heart and conscience knowing that we are a school district that is in significant fiscal stress,” said Trustee Mitchell. “Those cuts are coming to the people who are actually teaching, serving and protecting our children. You’re talking about our security workers, our food service, our CSEA. And we’re talking about our teachers, who are the true commodity and the true value of our District.”

A reduction of Foundation Aid also disproportionately affects Mount Vernon schools. Building Aid, which is a part of the total state aid package, is calculated based on the median income of households in the county. Mount Vernon has the lowest median income in Westchester County, yet Building Aid is calculated at the Westchester County median income. As a result, the District relies heavily on Foundation Aid.

“There is no more important investment than the investments we make in our children,” said Congressman Bowman. “When we invest in education, childcare and pre-K we see tremendous economic outcomes. We see the lowering of costs in our justice system and our healthcare system, and we give our kids the access and the opportunity to realize their full potential.”

Speakers asked community members to write to the governor and state legislators and urge them to reverse course, keep the Hold Harmless provision and keep Foundation Aid at the same level for all schools at least. County Executive Latimer suggested a one-house budget resolution, which could be introduced by State Representative Benedetto and State Senator Mayer.

“I am urging everyone to write to the Governor’s office and state legislators imploring them to not remove this much needed funding for our District from the state’s budget,” said Dr. Smith. “With your voices added, we can show just how important this funding is for the Mount Vernon City School District. It is truly pivotal for us.”

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