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Elected Officials Talk Issues Facing Private Schools At Roundtable

State senators and assembly members spoke at Solomon Schechter School of Westchester Thursday night

Fearing rising public school taxes and private school tuition costs, more than 100 people with children in private religious schools in Westchester met with local elected officials Thursday for a roundtable discussion about issues they’re facing moving forward.

The roundtable was hosted by Solomon Schechter School of Westchester in Hartsdale and organized by co-sponsored by the United Jewish Appeal (UJA) Federation, Archdiocese of New York, New York State Catholic Conference, Orthodox Union and Jewish Education Project. It featured State Senators Andrea Stewart-Cousins, Ruth Hassell-Thompson, George Latimer and David Carlucci, Assembly members David Buchwald and Shelley Mayer, as well as Nancy Fisher, chief of staff for Assemblywoman Amy Paulin. Also speaking were Darcy Hirsh, director of day school advocacy for UJA New York, Jim Cultrara, co-chair of the New York State Coalition for Independent and Religious Schools, and Jeff Leb, political affairs director for Orthodox Union.

Dr. Elliot Spiegel, head of Schechter, opened the event talking about the need for the Jewish and Catholic communities to come together to fight for their schools.

“During this financial times, there is a great deal of stress on our families and on our schools, on our religious mission-driven, value-drive institutions,” he said. “We want all to provide outstanding education, and we want to be able to provide it in a way which all families representing the diversity of our communities are able to participate. This is indeed a growing challenge for all of the communities represented here tonight.”

He called Thursday’s events part of a “grassroots effort” by those in the community to meet with those responsible to ensure their schools could get the kind of funding they need to continue to operate.

A topic brought up throughout the night was mandate relief, specifically the state not giving schools money previously promised to them.

“The conversations that we’ve had where the state has made promises and then somehow reneges on those promises, it’s really, really frustrating,” Stewart-Cousins said. “But again, there are strength in numbers and we will continue to push for the appropriate reimbursements”

Timothy McNiff, superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of New York, was in attendance Thursday night and said the state’s Catholic schools are owed roughly $31 million in reimbursements. Recently, the Archdiocese of New York recommended the closing of 22 elementary schools in New York, including schools in Scarsdale, Peekskill, Valhalla and Yonkers in Westchester, as well as two more in Rockland County.

“With that money, we’re not closing schools of that magnitude and those children are staying in those safe harbors,” McNiff  said. “I’m so appreciative when you prioritize for us, education in this state and how  important it is for children. May I submit, there’s a very tangible way of backing up those sentiments in Albany by providing those reimbursements.”

He also said if things don’t change, the Archdiocese could find itself in a similar position in about five years.

It’s also a crucial time currently for schools looking to save programs. With the governor submitting his budget recently, the state legislature has until March 31 to vote on the budget.

“This period between now and the end of March, we are going to go back and forth about the things we care about, including getting more money for the projects we care about,” Mayer said.

“It’s a tough time to get money and we have to fight to do the best we can.”

One thing that could help, according to Hassell-Thompson, is pressure from the community. More specifically, an educated community.

“It’s about pressure. It’s about supporting the efforts of the delegation,” she said. “When the delegation puts together a plan and puts it forward, you need to know what that is, so when you write these letters you know from an intelligent perspective this is what you’re asking for. I’m not suggesting that you ask for the whole megillah, but I am saying that your share of the megillah is your share and I think it’s appropriate for you to ask for that.”

The panel also talked about the Education Investment Incentive Act, which passed in the state senate the last two years but has yet to in the state assembly. The bill would create a dollar-to-dollar tax credit for donations to educational entities, such as public and private schools, school districts and programs in the schools run by non-profit organizations.

Carlucci also brought up a few additional ways to bring in more money to schools, which included reworking the state lottery system so winners get a payout of half opposed to 60 percent, with the 10 extra percent going to schools. Carlucci added he thinks it could bring in about $700 million to schools, and currently schools receive 30 percent of money from the lottery. Hassell-Thompson said the state is getting set to vote on allowing casinos, and should look into how that can help schools as well.

Another item Carlucci mentioned was reworking the combined wealth ratio, which is used in formulas to get state aid. He said the ratio doesn’t take into account private school students, and in one of his districts that has a growing population, less than 9,000 kids out of the 30,000 in that district attend the local public school. The rest are in private school.

“What that does is when you calculate that formula, on paper it looks like the wealthiest district around, but in reality, it’s not,” he said. “Those of us that know the district and know it well know it’s not. Not only do they not get reimbursed for the amount of state aid that other districts would get, they’re left out because they’re not seen as a high-need district. That’s one of the top priorities I have going into this session, trying to bring equity to that formula. My point of view: I don’t care if it’s a public or a private school, a child deserves a quality education and we have to make sure they get the funding to do that.”

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