Local school officials skeptical of Cuomo’s education incentive

Could schoolchildren lose part of their summers spent playing with friends, free from muggy classrooms? Not anytime soon, local school officials say.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s call at the start of this year for public schools to extend learning hours has left local school officials – already boggled by tight budgets and new mandates – skeptical about the economics and effectiveness of such a plan.

Red Hook and Rhinebeck school officials said last week that, from their view, extended classroom hours may not be beneficial, and they have no plans to explore the possibility.

In laying out his 2013 education funding plan in his January State of the State Address, Cuomo announced that $20 million of his budget would fund a competitive grant for schools to extend the school year or the school days with academically enriched programming.

“Our children are not being educated to the fullest,” Cuomo said, adding that he feels public schools are currently providing an education “as if we were an agrarian economy and an agrarian society.”

In order to get the grant, a school would have to expand learning time by 25 percent to receive reimbursement, if awarded the grant. If a school chose to extend just the learning year, hat would add about two months to the school calendar.

“We’re looking at it with a good bit of caution before we go down that road,” said Joseph Phelan, superintendent of Rhinebeck schools. He said much has yet to be clarified or explained by the state regarding the possible grant funding.

One major unanswered question for Phelan, he told The Observer, is how the extended learning would be paid for once the grant runs out. He said he is concerned about the long-term costs, especially in the context of the state-mandated 2 percent property tax cap.

“How sustainable can that be moving forward?” Phelan asked.

Kelly Mosher, president of the Red Hook School District Board of Education, said exploring the concept of longer school days or a longer school year does not even make the list of things the board is currently trying to maneuver its way through.

“Without ever getting to the merits of whether it’s good, bad or indifferent, it is not something we would even consider or discuss unless, as with so many other things, the state mandates it,” Mosher told The Observer. “With the tax cap already imposed by the state, and the movement of our staff through step increases [mandated salary hikes] coupled with rising fuel and health care costs, we face a budget shortfall every year just to roll out the same programs we had the year before, which requires us to make cuts and continually do more with less.”

She added, “Clearly, longer school days or more school days would exacerbate our budget difficulties. We would need to pay more for utilities and more for employees. The state typically imposes mandates without funding them, leaving the burden on local districts to find a way to pay. If that’s their game plan with longer school days and a longer school year, we’re going to take a very dim view of that. How do you pay more when you have trouble paying for what you already have?”

Phelan said that he and most of the Rhinebeck board of education members are skeptical not not only about the funding portion of plan, but also about the effectiveness of it. He said he wants to research whether more time in classrooms adds to students’ overall learning.

“We’ll keep an open mind,” Phelan said. “We’re just looking for more answers.”

Red Hook District Superintendent Paul Finch echoed Phelan’s skepticism in a written statement:

“There is no doubt that a lengthened school day or year may have a positive impact on student achievement,” Finch wrote. “Notice I did not say will have a positive impact. The research tends to suggest that economically or social disadvantaged children will benefit. For all others, it depends on the quality of the extra instruction. While I would certainly welcome the opportunity to increase instructional hours, we would all be wise to be focused on quality first rather than on quantity.”

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