Carrying banners and wearing red, hundreds of parents, children, teachers and residents turned out for a rally planned Thursday at the Pulaski Street School and raised their voices in protest over state cuts in aids that they say are crippling the district.
The "Stop the Cap, Close the Gap," rally was organized to address state funding of education and was held Thursday on the front lawn of the Pulaski Street School.
The rally was organized in a number of school districts to highlight the fact that New York State has "significantly reduced its role in funding our schools and passed the burden on to local communities. The combination of reduced state aid and the cap on local funding will force schools to continue cutting the quality of education. It is imperative that we speak up for our children’s future," a release announcing the event said.
South Jamesport resident Georgette Keller, who teaches at the attended the rally with fellow educators Melissa Ries and Jennie Jaeger.
"The two percent tax cap is going to debilitate every school district in New York," Keller said.
The Riverhead school district alone, she said, has seen $8 million worth of cuts in state funding.
"It's the kids who suffer," Keller said. She added that to close the achievement gap, small class sizes are critical. Studies have indicated, Keller added, that even in poverty stricken areas, small class size can help students overcome challenges.
One graduate of Riverhead High School, whose parents and grandparents, as well as children, have been students in the district, said, "It's time to tell Governor Cuomo, 'Enough is enough.' We want to send a message to Albany that every child in New York State is entitled to an education, regardless of their zip code. Are you getting our message loud and clear?" she asked.
The Educate NY rallies were held on Thursday in Suffolk County in working class communities where "the pain is felt most acutely," she said, because the districts do not have the tax base to support the cuts.
Riverhead Board of Education president Ann Cotten-DeGrasse compared education in the 1960s to the present and outlined the diverse and rich academic programs and clubs the district now offers to ensure students are equipped to head off to college in a rapidly evolving workplace.
"Public eduation is what made this country great," she said. Times have changed, she said, and "education has to change, to meet these needs." But, she added, money is needed to support the programs, clubs, athletic programs and advanced placement classes students need to compete and succeed.
Unfunded mandates, Cotten-DeGrasse, need to stop; the audience cheered.
"It's up to you to make your voices heard," she said. "Tell your state representatives that something must be done now."
At the rally, students spoke passionately about the AP classes, theater, sports, and music programs, clubs and class trips that have enriched their educational experience. As faculty cuts have been made, more students are in study hall, they pointed out. Sports and other programs, they said, keep kids safe and off the street and build lifelong friendships.
Lisa Lagnena, who has a six-year-old and a four-year-old, said cuts in state aid could mean slashing kindergarten to a half day or eliminating it entirely, leading to approximately $7000 for parents in daycare costs and putting young students at a disadvantage when they start first grade.
Congressman Tim Bishop attended the rally; discussing what's at stake on the federal level, Bishop said while Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney might say he is not cutting education funding, "the budget he supports cuts $100 billiion in grades K through 12" over the next years.
"If you care about education, there's only one vote -- Obama, on the national level, and for me," Bishop said.
Bishop added he comes from a famly of educators. "The most honored profession in the country is teaching," he said.
The rally caused some contention earlier in the week: At Tuesday night's Riverhead board of eduction meeting, Barbara Barosa, president of the Riverhead Central Faculty Association, which hosted the event, said she was "sorry" that Riverhead School Superintendent Nancy Carney did not mention the "pro-education" rally in her message during the meeting.
"We're trying to make the public aware of the lack of funding coming from Albany," Barosa said. "With many mandates sent to the districts, including new testing and new APPR regulations, the tax burden has shifted to the local taxpayer."
Barosa, who said she believes the community should be aware of funding issues, said that Long Island has lost $2.7 billion over the past years in state funding.
The only way for Albany to hear about the problem, she said, is for community members, parents, teachers, administrators and others to make their voices heard. "I would encourage anyone who would like to stand up and be counted let them know that what we are getting from Albany is not fair. More of the burden is being switched to us, the taxpapers, this year. I hope we can count on your support."
PTO Executive Council past president Laurie Downs said she thought the rally was meant to be aimed at saying no to the state tax cap.
"One issue is the cap, but there are other issues as well," Barosa said.
Downs countered that the tax cap is a union issue.
"It's a public education issue," said Barosa.
Riverhead Board of Education President Ann Cotten-DeGrasse said times are difficult. "We have to work together," she said. "Everyone has to put their shoulder to the wheel to find a resolution to the problems we're facing."
Downs disagreed. "The people of New York fought for that cap because we want relief from our taxes," she said. "We're happy with it. If it's a rally to remove the cap, I believe board members should not be there."
At the rally, where board president Cotten-DeGrasse and BOE members Kimberly Ligon and Susan Koukounas were in attendance, Downs said she believed school board members should not be present.
"Board members took an oath to represent the community as a whole -- not the teachers' union," she said.
Downs also said she did not believe children should have been wearing red, carrying signs, or speaking at the event.
"I'm here as a parent, and as an advocate for children and the public school system," Koukounas said.