Rallying in Riverhead for school relief from NYS

PAUL SQUIRE PHOTO | Supporters hold signs during a rally demanding the state give more funding to local school districts

More than 100 people, including members of the Riverhead School District school board and Congressman Tim Bishop, gathered near the front steps of Pulaski Street School Thursday afternoon to demand the state provide additional funding to schools

Gatherers also criticized the state’s voter-approved tax levy cap.

The “pro-education” rally featured speeches by district teachers, students, Mr. Bishop and school board president Ann Cotten-Degrasse, who compared the district today with the district as it was in 1969, a few years after she began working as a Riverhead High School teacher.

Education has changed since then, Ms. Cotten-Degrasse said. Despite more classes offered, more extra-curricular activities, and more sports in the district, the state devotes a smaller percentage of its annual budget now to education than it did in the 1960s, she said as the crowd booed.

“If we want to continue to provide the resources necessary for our students to succeed in today’s world we must insist that the state share more of the burden by relieving us of unfunded mandates,” she said.

PAUL SQUIRE PHOTO | More than 100 people attended the rally Thursday afternoon.

She said the year-to-year 2 percent tax levy cap — which limits the amount of money the district can collect — could turn out to be a good or bad thing, but added that if the district is to continue it’s current programs, people’s voices must be heard.

“We, all of you people, including parents, grandparents, are the stewards charged with preparing this and future generations for getting full employment,” Ms. Cotten-Degrasse said.

People at the rally carried homemade signs or ones distributed by Educate NY, a coalition devoted to state aid reform, that read “Reverse the Cuts” and “Stop the Cap, Close the Gap!” Many of the attendees wore red to send a message to the state to “stop.”

The rally was one of 11 rallies occurring across Long Island that called for the state to increase funding to schools, organizers said.

Catherine Kent, a Riley Avenue 2nd grade teacher and district parent, said there was a funding crisis in district schools.

“We have been writing letters, sending emails and faxes, having conversations with Governor Cuomo and the lawmakers in Albany,” Ms. Kent said. “Today, parents, educators, school leaders and community members are joining together to stand up for our schools and tell the state and Governor Cuomo that enough is enough.”

Riverhead High School junior Jessica Sisti spoke at the rally about the different school activities she enjoyed, like AP classes and music programs. She warned that losing these programs to cuts in the district would “have a negative impact” on her and fellow students, and blamed the tax levy cap and lack of state funds for the crisis.

“This is a backwards way of solving the problem of debt,” she said.

Mr. Bishop also made a speech at the rally, and also railed against Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, whom he said supports spending cuts for education.

“If you care about K through 12 education … if you care about higher education, there’s only one vote to cast,” Mr. Bishop said. “Nationally that’s for President Obama and if you’re in the First Congressional District that’s for me.”

PAUL SQUIRE PHOTO | School board president Ann Cotten-Degrasse speaks at the rally Thursday afternoon.

Riverhead Central Faculty Association union president Barbara Barosa said she was “dismayed” to see that no school administrators attended the rally.

“If they can’t support a pro-education rally, what can they support?” Ms. Barosa said.

Ms. Cotten-Degrasse was joined at the rally by fellow school board members Kimberly Ligon and Sue Koukounas.

At the previous board meeting, a resident said she felt it was inappropriate for the board to attend the rally because of the anti-tax cap implications, but Ms. Cotten-Degrasse disagreed.

“As an elected member of the board of education, I do not leave my rights at the door, and those rights include free speech,” she said. “I feel strongly about this … and I’m willing to stand up.”

She said that while she had hoped to see more members of the community, she saw the rally as “an excellent start.”

“I think there’s a lot of work to be done,” Ms. Cotten-Degrasse said. “A lot of people need to put their shoulder to the wheel. It affects all of us.

“It’s not just a teacher issue, it’s not just a board of education issue.”

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