There is plenty on the minds of the 131 people running for school board seats in Erie and Niagara counties on Tuesday.
Common Core learning standards. Declining enrollment. State aid.
But talk to the candidates, and one concern comes up again and again: the effect of cuts to education in recent years.
“Inadequate, inequitable funding and lack of local control are not the right direction for public education,” said Jessica B. Armbrust, an East Aurora school board member seeking her second term.
The News asked candidates running for 83 seats in 37 school districts to respond to questions about their views on public education; 106 responded. Their full answers are at buffalonews.com/elections.
More than half said they do not believe New York public education is headed in the right direction. They expressed concern about everything from the implementation of new Common Core learning standards to the state lawmakers’ decision to pull back funding for schools in the midst of a state budget crisis a few years ago.
“How loudly can I shout NO?” Ann Finkle wrote in response to a question about whether New York State education is headed in the right direction.
Finkle, a retired teacher who is running for a seat on the North Tonawanda School Board, thought the biggest issue facing local schools is the state Education Department and “Albany budget makers.”
Others were proud of New York’s education system, but said assessing the state’s performance on education has nuances.
“Like many questions facing our schools, I have difficulty answering this question by a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ ” wrote James M. VanDette, an attorney running for a seat in Maryvale. “However, what is clear to me is that there is a frightening disconnect between the educational policy makers at the state and local level. I would hope that everyone in New York State feels that education must improve.”
Still other candidates were more positive about the state of public education.
“New York generally does a good job with education, but the road is not straight and is often bumpy,” Jason S. Crosby, a computer programmer seeking a seat on the Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda board. “Recent cutbacks in state aid were difficult but brought to light inefficiencies that allow us to become better stewards of taxpayer resources. The decisions we make must be focused on student achievement.”
Deep concern about school finances was a theme in more than half of the candidate responses, and the number of people who expressed concerns about recent budget cuts in schools outweighed those that described spending as too high.
William F. Kane Jr., a recently retired investigator for the Department of Justice and a retired military veteran, is concerned that cuts in state aid and unfunded state requirements will diminish the work of teachers and administrators in the East Aurora School District to make it “one of the finest in the state.”
“These funding cuts cannot continue without the quality of education to our students suffering drastically,” Kane said. “These cuts come at a time when teachers and our students are being asked to meet higher standards than any previous generation.”
Kane noted that East Aurora, like other districts, has already had to cut teachers, increase class sizes and scale back student programs to make up for lost state aid.
About a quarter of the candidates, particularly incumbents, mentioned the state’s Gap Elimination Adjustment as a specific problem they would lobby to change. The adjustment was a formula state lawmakers used to pull back school funding as they plugged a state budget gap several years ago, but has not been fully repealed since.
“We have had to make very painful budget decisions but have done so carefully and strategically so that we are positioned to survive this difficult time and meet our goal of returning Eden to the top echelon,” said R. Colin Campbell, an Eden incumbent and an attorney.
Since 2008, Campbell said, the Eden school district has lost almost $8 million in state revenue because of the change in the state’s funding formula.
Davis Podkulski, a cook running for a seat on the Frontier School Board, said he believes Albany politicians are putting their own interests ahead of schools and students.
Podkulski, who is a 2012 graduate of Frontier, is among the youngest candidates in Erie and Niagara counties.
“Local taxpayers are left to make up for the lost revenue from the state,” Podkulski wrote. “This is money we have already paid through income, sales, gasoline, and more ‘hidden’ taxes. The state continues to increase its control over our schools and promote its one-size-fits-all educational model.”
How the state has handled the rollout of the Common Core learning standards was also a consistent theme.
James E. Gramkee, a certified public accountant running for a seat on the Amherst Board of Education, said he could not remember a time when parents organized and had their children boycott tests, as thousands did this spring.
“Common Core may be good in theory and, in the end, it may be good in practice,” Gramkee wrote. “But currently, it’s causing a lot of confusion.”
Mel L. Williams, an East Concord resident who is running for a second term on the Springville-Griffith Institute School Board, wants to see the implementation of the Common Core standards done “incrementally.”
Like other candidates, Williams wants to see more funding for staff training and textbooks.
“The Common Core curriculum is a good idea for the entire country but the state startup of this program has been poor in New York,” wrote Williams, a retired Department of Corrections superintendent.
Others said they wanted to see the state eliminate the Common Core.
“It is not just slightly misguided; it is backwards,” wrote Lauren Nicholas, a professor and a mother running for the West Seneca School Board. “As a professor-educator, I know what it takes to succeed on the college level. Common Core is unquestionably not able to produce the capable students it promises.”
One thing that frustrates some school board members is the lack of control they have over many aspects of education. While school board members approve staff contracts, help craft annual budgets and set policy, they must act within state and federal regulations that often limit the choices they can make.
Local school board issues will also play a role in some board elections. Several candidates in Hamburg mentioned the recent strife between school district leaders.
Candidates in Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda were focused on a consolidation plan to close schools.
As candidates face Tuesday’s Board of Education elections, there was one theme upon which they all they seemed to agree: They are in it for the children.
“Our education system is facing unprecedented financial, programming, and achievement challenges, including implementation of the Common Core Learning Standards,” wrote Patrick J. Kilcullen, a Newfane board member running for his third term. “Nevertheless, I believe by finding common ground amongst all constituents we will be able to build an education system that will better prepare our children for the challenges of the future.”
For complete coverage and results of the election, come to BuffaloNews.com Tuesday night.