Tonawanda News

November 21, 2013

Advocating for education

By Jessica Bagley
The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — TOWN OF TONAWANDA — The Ken-Ton School District is joining a region-wide movement to lobby legislators for educational change related to a variety of hot-button issues, including Common Core testing and a long list of unfunded mandates. 

“Over the past few years, we’ve seen the problems exacerbate,” school board President Bob Dana, one of the leading lobbyists of the group, said. “We’ve got the testing, APPR ... and we still have the financial problems. It has just snowballed.” 

The board, parents and teachers met publicly for the second time Wednesday night as part of the new legislative advocacy initiative. Dana, Vice President Stephen Brooks, and other leaders of the group, including Ken-Ton Parent Association President Jill O’Malley, are recruiting parents to lobby legislators about the district’s concerns. Dana said he hopes to create 12 teams that can talk to legislators, their staff and the education department once a week. 

“Parents today, they’ve got kids, they work and so forth, and they don’t have a lot of time,” Dana said. “But we’re not asking for a lot. If a parent can donate a few hours every three months, we can have different people lobbying every week.” 

The reports from each lobbying effort will then be posted on the website, where two such documents are already available. The reports will inform residents about where the politicians stand on the issues.

In one of the published reports, for example, state Sen. Mark Grisanti’s chief of staff, Douglas Curella, indicated that the legislator would likely not support raising taxes to increase financial aid for school districts, but said he supported other solutions that could help ease the strain.

Curella attended the meeting Wednesday, explaining Grisanti’s stance and what residents can do.

“Everyone is tired of unfunded mandates, we are aware of that and are working on it,” he said. “Many want more funding, but don’t want higher taxes, so we have to find a middle ground.”

Grisanti sponsored a bill that would prohibit unfunded mandates from being imposed after a school district has adopted a budget, Curella said.

“It’s common sense. When you sit down at your kitchen table and do a budget, you don’t say after, ‘let’s plan a trip to Hawaii’ when you have no money for it,” he said.

Another bill, co-sponsored by Grisanti, would only allow mandated programs if they are funded by the state.

Curella also noted other ways districts can raise money to meet state standards and preserve programs. Another state bill, for example, would allow school districts to sell advertising on school buses and outside athletic fields.

“That’s something we would like to do to allow a district to raise a little extra money,” he said.

But many of the bills need more support in the education committee and both houses to pass the state legislature, and that’s where Ken-Ton residents could come in. Some attendees suggested lobbying the chair of the education committee to advocate for such measures.

In closing, Curella applauded the group for their efforts.

“Maybe other school districts will follow your lead. Ultimately, it is going to help the kids out,” he said.

Although officials began some legislative efforts themselves about three years ago, Dana said he and Brooks started the new group recently, after local politicians held a Summit for Smarter Schools at Kleinhans Music Hall last month. 

“That really kicked off a lot of things here in Western New York,” Dana said. “It showed you that people were listening and that people were concerned. We said, ‘let’s use that energy and educate everyone about what the real concerns are, and what can be done about it.’” 

Issues discussed Wednesday included overreliance on state testing. Although many district officials are concerned about the new standards and time allocated for the difficult exams, Ken-Ton — as well as legislators — support standardized testing.

The district is firmly against opting out of the tests, as well, as it could further jeopardize state funding.

Contact reporter Jessica Bagley at 693-1000 ext. 4150, or follow her on Twitter @JessicaLBagley.