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Griffo hears from Lewis, St. Lawrence school officials

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LOWVILLE — More than a dozen school administrators from Lewis and St. Lawrence counties met Thursday with state Sen. Joseph A. Griffo to air concerns and discuss education funding.

“I yield to your counsel,” said Mr. Griffo, R-Rome, who set up the session here after being unable to attend the Jefferson-Lewis School Boards Association’s legislative breakfast held a couple of weeks ago in Watertown.

Both St. Lawrence-Lewis Board of Cooperative Educational Services Superintendent Thomas R. Burns and Jefferson-Lewis BOCES Superintendent John J. Boak Jr. expressed concern that state education officials don’t appear to have a plan for school districts heading toward financial insolvency.

“It’s something they have to plan for now,” Mr. Burns said of cash-strapped districts.

Mr. Griffo said there may be a task force established to advise such districts and other local governments, and he said he hopes officials may have other ideas that haven’t been released yet.

The money proposed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo for area school districts is probably not enough, but “the good news is at least you’re seeing an upward trend in education funding,” Mr. Griffo said.

He said he would like to see $245 million in funding that has been withheld from districts — primarily ones in New York City — that failed to establish teacher evaluation policies redistributed to all complying districts.

“You did your work,” he said. “You played by the rules.”

Mr. Griffo said he also favors elimination of competitive grants for schools and increased funding for low-wealth districts and plans to introduce soon legislation requiring that any new state mandates have funding attached.

However, the senator noted that upstate and downstate lawmakers tend to be divided on school funding distribution and other issues and acknowledged that he is not really certain how his proposals will fare, particularly under the Senate’s new bipartisan coalition leadership.

Mr. Griffo also asked administrators for their thoughts on the governor’s proposals of longer school days and full-day prekindergarten.

South Lewis Central School Superintendent Douglas E. Premo said that while extended time could provide educational benefits, mandating longer hours would force districts to pay staffers much more under their union contracts. “It’s going to be a big dollar amount,” he said.

Mr. Griffo said he would rather fund pilot programs at several districts first before implementing it on a more extensive basis.

Funding should be available for districts without prekindergarten before expanding existing programs, Beaver River Central School District Superintendent Leueen Smithling said. “We’re the only district in the county that doesn’t have pre-K,” she said.

St. Lawrence Central School District Superintendent Stephen M. Putman questioned a requirement that districts each year conduct an internal audit of procedures, along with their regular external audit. “It’s a totally unfunded mandate,” he said.

Mr. Premo suggested that the September deadline for approval of districts’ second-year annual professional performance review plan be pushed back to allow districts more time to look over teacher growth scores from this school year.

“That’s a reasonable request,” Mr. Griffo said, noting he would pass along the recommendation.

Following the session at Lowville Academy and Central School, the senator made a brief visit to the Lewis County Sheriff’s Department to meet its new police dog, Wyman, and handler Daryl R. Ortlieb.

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