schools CuomoVsPettograssoTo hear Lansing school officials talk you would think that Albany and Governor Andrew Cuomo is waging a war against education under the banner of New York State Education Reform, and districts like Lansing in particular.  Local school officials charge that the Governor's initiatives on school taxes and teacher evaluations lump successful districts with failing ones.  Lansing School Superintendent Chris Pettograsso charged that Governor Andrew Cuomo is holding state aid hostage to force schools to conform to arbitrary requirements.

"He does not have any say over education policy," she said.  "His say comes down to the budget.  That's his power.  He has stated that he will not provide any increases to public education funding unless the Assembly approves his Board of Regents reform agenda.  He is proposing that 50% of teacher evaluations be based on student test scores and that the rest is based on local assessment and observation."

In a presentation to the faculty Pettograsso proposed that the State continue to focus on poverty in schools and invest in struggling schools instead of applying so-called reforms to successful and failing districts across the board.

"It's not a universal issue," she said.  "The governor spoke about investing about $50 million dollars in the state fair to 'reimage the fair to show what New York State is today.'  Shortly after that he talked about how Rochester has the highest child poverty rate and he's going to invest $10 million there.  We found a lot of disparities in what he was saying."

Pettograsso said Monday that with budget planning the effect of state funding is not expected to be 'too devastating' to Lansing's 2015-16 budget.  She said the more significant effect will be on the profession of educators and what it means for students.

She said the Governor wants half of teacher evaluations to be tied to their students' test scores.  The Board Of Regents, also under attack by the Governor, has recommended 40%, up from the 20% that is currently mandated.  but Pettograsso says that state testing statistics are purposefully skewed to meet Albany's agendas.  And she says that successful districts like Lansing are being lumped with failing districts across the state.

Cuomo may be on to something, though nobody seems to agree that he is going about it in a fair way that actually helps students or educators.  Pettograsso said Cuomo's figures state that only 30% of New York State students score as proficient in state tests, but 98% of teachers were rated proficient overall.

"We know that the scale scores in the tests are skewed and changed to meet the needs of the State," Pettograsso charged.  "They are not really straight-up information anyway.  We know charter schools are on that list and there are no strings attached to funding that will be going to charter schools."

A WalletHub study released this week shows five New York school districts -- Syracuse (82), New York (86), Buffalo (87), Yonkers (89), and Rochester (90) in the bottom ten out of 90 schools rated for efficient spending.  Those were the only five New York districts included in the study.  The study notes that "education topped state and local government spending at $869.2 billion in 2012, according to the latest finance data from the U.S. Census Bureau."

Pettograsso said some of his recommendations come from the Board of Regents, who suggested that 40% of teacher evaluations be based on student test scores, rather than the current 20%.  They also recommended that tenure consideration be expanded to a five years, and endorsed teacher incentives.

"The Governor said that teacher incentives are on his agenda," she said.  "But at the very end he said 'only when we see that teacher evaluations are accurate.'  So that's not really on his agenda right now."

She also noted that monies promised by Albany that have been withheld over the past several years have exacerbated budgets for school systems state-wide.  This year Lansing faces a $700,000 budget gap in its 2015-16 rollover budget, a theoretical budget that calculates the additional cost of keeping everything next year as it is this year.  She said if the State honored its commitment there would be no gap in Lansing's budget.

"When we look at our difference, it's still that $800,000 that we're owed for the GEA (Gap Elimination Adjustment)," Pettograsso said.  "If that were fully restored it would make a huge difference in our budget.  Right now that will not be coming to us if the full reform agenda as-is not approved by legislators."

She said that scores at this point are only available for ELA teachers, and that there is great uncertainty as to how other teachers will be impacted by the new evaluation process.

"We really need parents to get involved," she said.  "It has direct effect on public education and what will happen to education in the future.  We see a lot of teachers leaving right now that may not have left.  Some of our best teachers were scored 'ineffective' in the area of teaching, because they take that student and compare him to other students across the state."

School administrators worry that already uncertain state aid figures will be held up further because of State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver stepping down before budget negotiations in Albany get started.  

New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver was arrested just over a week agoon federal corruption charges.  A  criminal complaint accuses the 70-year-old Democrat from Manhattan of using his position in the Assembly to collect millions of dollars in bribes and kickbacks.  Pettograsso says she is worried that effectively replacing Silver at this stage of budget negotiations will delay state figures on how many aid dollars school districts can plan for.   As districts must craft their budgets each year in time for a May vote, the later they know what actual money they can expect from the state, the more difficult it is to plan.

But Pettograsso says that Lansing is in good shape relative to many other districts.  She has pushed an advocacy program, and told the school board Monday that she planned to meet again with Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton, who she said is a strong advocate for education, and State Senator Mike Nozzolio.  

"There's a lot in (Cuomo's education reform agenda) regarding evaluation and the stance of the administration is that it's not an appropriate response to what he thinks is a broken system," Pettograsso says.  "He talks about the New York State public school results being poor and low and says we're not improving.  When we share Lansing's results we are doing quite well, yet the reform affects all of us in the same way."