Representatives of two school districts said Wednesday that state aid for local districts was insufficient and said the perception of Long Island as an enclave of wealth and privilege was part of the problem.
“We have a great resource on Long Island and that is our public schools; we have outstanding results, we have fantastic teachers,” said Dr. David Bennardo, superintendent of South Huntington schools. But, referring to this year’s aid package as “paltry,” Bennardo added, “There’s a perception that Long Island is the land of yachts and polo ponies.There’s no question that that’s what is believed throughout the state.”
He, school board president Nicholas Ciappetta and Dr. Donald James, superintendent of Commack schools, said that a less-than-needed state aid package, combined with this year’s tax cap of 1.8 percent, will squeeze districts that already are dipping into reserve funds.
This year’s state aid “brought some of the lowest increases to Long Island in general and South Huntington specifically, in over a decade, an increase of approximately one half of one percent,” Bennardo said. “If a pattern develops where 9 percent is going to the urban centers and 1 percent to Long Island, districts like Commack and districts like South Huntington and all the other districts on Long Island will be in crisis.”
James and Bennardo were joined at a press conference at the South Huntington district office by a host of other school representatives, parents, union leaders, school board members and educational organizations.
“Commack is a squarely middle class community,” James aid. “We’re not poor enough to qualify for additional aid, given the current rhetoric,” James said. “We’re not wealthy enough to not care about it.
“Our students are world-ready,” James said. “South Huntington and Commack have been working on this for years, making sure our students are not only academically ready but socially and emotionally ready. These are the types of programs that would be cut first if we have to cut it because we don’t have sufficient state aid. Dave (Bennardo) is right. They look at Long Island as if we have polo ponies in the yard. Every yard. We don’t.”
Citing mandated costs controlled by the state against taxes and state aid, James said, “We are starting out in the red and I think that would hold true for most of the middle class or lower middle class districts on the Island.”
“This isn’t an individual problem,” Bennardo said. “It’s a collective issue.”
With a huge state budget deficit looming, school districts are worried that their share of state aid will continue to shrink in relation to costs and needs.
The office of State Sen. James Gaughran said, “The 2019 budget provided $3.3 billion in overall total school aid New York statewide. The Senate Democratic Majority was able to secure millions more for Long Island schools than in the governor’s proposed budget. This is approximately a $125 million increase for Long Island from last year’s budget. By comparison, last year’s budget (under the Republican majority) was only able to secure a $111 million increase from 2017, a $14 million difference.”
South Huntington teachers union president Dennis Callahan spoke bluntly, sending a message that support of elected officials in the State Legislature wasn’t a guarantee in the future. “Stop speaking empty words to us,” he said. “We are at a critical point, being asked to do more with less.”
State Assemblyman Steve Stern, D-Huntington, said, “I was proud today to stand up in Albany with NYSUT President Andrew Pallotta and several of my colleagues to send a strong message for the need to ‘Fund Our Future.
“Particularly during these challenging times, it is imperative that we provide the necessary resources for our priorities and there can be no greater priority than our children’s future. Our school districts are the pride of our communities and I look forward to working hard with all of my suburban Long Island partners in government, as well as our school administrators, teachers and parents, to ensure that Long Island schools get our fair share.”