Hundreds of people picketed in Middletown Tuesday afternoon, calling on state legislators to increase school funding.
Around 3 p.m., a couple dozen people were already gathered in front of the office complex behind the Taco Bell on Dolson Avenue that houses the Middletown office of Sen. John Bonacic, R, C-Mount Hope. A few busloads of students came and the crowd kept growing, until there were close to two hundred people by 3:45 p.m.
Most of the protestors were from Middletown — including teachers, students and school board members — although there were some from neighboring districts. Carrying signs that called on Bonacic and Gov. Andrew Cuomo to increase school funding, they chanted “These budget cuts have got to go! Hey hey! Ho ho!” A similarly large crowd — over 100 people — gathered across town, in front of City Hall, which houses a district office of Assemblywoman Aileen Gunther, D, WF-Forestburgh.
Middletown is facing a more than $5 million budget gap in 2014-2015, and the school board is considering dozens of teacher layoffs and maybe closing Truman Moon elementary. There have been layoffs in most of the budgets over the past few years.
District officials blame state mandates, and aid amounts far less than what was promised after the state changed the formula for aid distribution in 2007, for hurting Middletown and other similar small-city districts. (Click here for a report from Rutgers University education finance expert and professor Bruce Baker that says Middletown is the 10th-most underfunded district in the state.)
At last week’s Middletown school board meeting, members were especially critical of Bonacic, who voted for the state Senate budget proposal that contains both tax credits for charter school donors and over a half-billion for universal pre-kindergarten in New York City that, they argued, should’ve been spent on school aid statewide instead. They also accused Bonacic of never visiting the district or showing any interest in it, in contrast with Gunther, who they said they see and speak to more regularly.
A few of the protesters — including Middletown Superintendent Ken Eastwood — carried signs that attacked Bonacic for supporting charter schools, or said “Let Bill Gates fund charter schools,” a reference to the millions of dollars the Microsoft business magnate has donated to charters.
Andrew Warren, the vice president of Middletown’s school board, said it doesn’t make sense to spend money on UPK when Middletown might have to get rid of full-day kindergarten in 2014-2015.
“We really need to fund the programs that already exist,” he said.
Sheila Esposito, president of the Middletown Teachers Association, said Bonacic called her on Monday — the first time he had done so in the 11 years she has headed the MTA, she said. Esposito said there were points in the conversation where they connected, although he mostly said that the district needs to make do with the funding it’s getting — a viewpoint she disagrees with.
“We have had enough,” she told him.
Esposito said she thinks upstate school issues may have been overshadowed by New York City’s money and influence, and the high-profile fight between Cuomo and NYC Mayor Bill De Blasio over UPK and charter schools.
Bonacic’s office said Monday that he is fighting for increased education aid. They didn’t immediately respond to another request for comment after Tuesday’s picket.
UPDATE: Bonacic spokesman MJ Goff just got back to me, with a statement going after Eastwood, and putting the blame on Eastwood, not the senator, for the lack of communication between Bonacic and the district over the years:
“On Monday morning in Albany there was a meeting, at the Superintendent’s request, between: Middletown School District Superintendent Ken Eastwood; Middletown School Board Member Paula E. Blumenau; Senator Flanagan who is the Chairman of the Senate Education Committee; and Senator Bonacic, where they discussed the financial position of the Middletown City School District. Senator Bonacic thought it was a good discussion as they were looking for ways to help the Middletown City School District. This was the first time in 10 years that Superintendent Eastwood has requested to meet with Senator Bonacic.
“At the present time Senator Bonacic is working with his colleagues on the State Budget in Albany and is fighting for increased education funding for all three dozen school districts he represents all or part of. He was the only Republican State Senator to call for the extension of the ‘millionaires tax’ back in 2011 in order to provide increased state aid for education, and the Times Herald Record noted this on 3/11/11. However, this Superintendent seems to have an insatiable appetite to spend taxpayer money. No matter how much state funding Middletown City School District receives, it will never satisfy this Superintendent.”
UPDATE (2): There was a similar, albeit smaller protest this afternoon by some Valley Central supporters in front of Sen. Bill Larkin’s office. There are some photos on Twitter here, posted by Joseph Byrne, who ran for trustee in Maybrook this year:
UPDATE (3): Statement from Gunther:
“I have been advocating tirelessly for additional funding for all the districts I represent. The Middletown School District has made extraordinary strides in recent years. They have an outstanding graduation rate, received Race to the Top funding from the federal government, and provide our children with a top-notch education. We need to preserve that, and I have been fighting tooth and nail. Today’s rally was a great opportunity for students, teachers, parents, advocates and the administration to join me in fighting for the most important cause there is – our children.”
UPDATE (4) (And this is really it, I’m getting hungry.): Eastwood replied that a politician (like Bonacic) should get out to see his constituency, and that several of the most underfunded districts in the state are in Bonacic’s district
– it’s not just Middletown. (Referring back to the Rutgers report I linked to earlier, I also see Ellenville, Fallsburg, Liberty, and Port Jervis.)
“I would measure Sen. Bonacic’s effectiveness in education relative to his ability to assure that all schools in his senatorial district are receiving their fair share of education,” Eastwood wrote. “If he wants to continue sending billions of dollars to New York City, that is his decision and should not be surprised when more constituents become angry that their children are suffering educationally.”
Below is a photo I took of the crowd in front of Middletown City Hall. Check recordonline.com and tomorrow’s paper for more photos of the protest on Dolson Avenue, by photographer Allyse Pulliam.