#schoolsafety | Funding, diploma requirements, school safety

When it comes to education, 2020 promises to be a busy and interesting year, both in the Lower Hudson Valley and across New York state. Educators, parents, lawmakers and advocates are focused on, among other issues, school funding, vaccination rules, school safety and what it should take to earn a high school diploma in the Empire State.

What to watch for

State funding fix? Expectations are high that the state Legislature will revamp its formula for dispersing aid to school districts in the coming months. How things might change or to what degree are anybody’s guess. The state Senate, led by education committee Chair Sen. Shelley Mayer, tried to change the game by holding talks around the state through the fall about how to fix or modernize the state’s “foundation aid” formula, used this year as the basis for distributing $18.4 billion to school districts.

What became clear is that educators, advocates and politicians have two district goals. One is to update the current formula so that it more accurately measures district need and can help foster equity among districts with very different local tax bases. The other is for the state to deliver up to $4 billion in unpaid aid that some say the formula promised over the last decade. The former would appear to be more realistic than the latter, especially given the state’s $6-8 billion budget deficit.

It’s up to Mayer and Senate Majority Leader Andrew Stewart-Cousins to decide what changes to pursue in the state budget and then, perhaps, in the longer term. They’ll need Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s support at some point.

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Graduation requirements under review: Might the state Board of Regents do away with their namesake Regents exams? That’s one possibility as the board begins a major review of New York’s high school graduation requirements. The board could decide on multiple pathways to a diploma (in place of or in addition to the current Regents exams), take more limited steps, or do nothing at all.

Through the spring, the state will be reviewing what other states do and gathering feedback from educators across New York. Then a “blue ribbon commission” will be appointed in April to review feedback and take the lead going forward. The commission’s membership is sure to be closely studied. The commission is supposed to present a final report to the Regents in the fall of 2021.

School safety remains a concern: As districts work to school safety, false security alarms of many kinds have become a major challenge. A technical error at White Plains High School on Halloween left students cowering in closets. Weeks later, a threat that turned out to be a hoax brought a major police response to Felix Festa Middle School in Clarkstown. These situations create real fear for parents and students alike. Districts and law enforcement will continue working together to increase security in many ways, from updating doors and windows to providing supports for troubled students, even as they seek to avoid becoming fortresses.

Choosing a commissioner: Four-year state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia left the position in September. The department hopes to select a search firm in January and to have a permanent commissioner by spring or summer. It’s an important hire as the commissioner plays a major role in setting New York’s agenda on education.

Replacing Judith Johnson: Johnson, who represented Westchester, Rockland, Putnam, Dutchess and Orange counties on the Board of Regents, died unexpectedly on Oct. 28. She was perhaps the best-known educator in the Lower Hudson Valley, widely respected for insisting on educational equity for all students. To replace Johnson, Democrats in the state Assembly, who control the process for choosing Regents, will likely schedule public interviews soon with candidates, first in the 9th Judicial District and again in Albany. A finalist is likely to be chosen by the district’s legislative delegation in March.

New vaccines possible: Last September, New York ended religious exemptions for vaccinations. The stricter regulations and heightened attention to the topic have added momentum to bills in the state Senate and Assembly that would add the HPV vaccine to the list of school-mandated immunizations. These bills have been introduced for several years, but Assemblywoman Amy Paulin told the Journal News/lohud that the issue is now more visible and more likely to be acted upon. “Vaccine rights” groups held a day of protests early this month to speak out against mandatory HPV and flu vaccines. The vaccination battles may only be heating up.

Crossroads for private school monitoring: One of the most controversial issues in education in recent years has been the state’s move to update its supervision of private schools. A state law has long required that academic instruction in private schools be “substantially equivalent” what public school instruction. But the law, which required public school superintendents to monitor instruction at private schools, was hardly enforced.

Elia began working in 2017 to update enforcement of the law, primarily because the most traditional Hasidic yeshivas were suspected of largely ignoring secular instruction. Her efforts, which culminated in new proposed regulations for enforcing the law, enraged the yeshiva community, and faced strong opposition from Catholic education groups and other private school officials. The Board of Regents was expected to vote on the regulations, but did not. A spokesperson for the state Education Department said the department is reviewing public comments on the regulations, including 140,000 emailed comments, and will make any “necessary” changes to the regulations. “If substantial changes are made, there will be another comment period,” the spokesperson said.

Expanding pre-kindergarten: Assembly Democrats from outside New York City have pledged to fight to include funding in the upcoming state budget for full-day pre-kindergarten for all 4-year-olds in the state. New York City has a flourishing pre-K program, but other districts offer a hodgepodge of half- and full-day programs that rely on several state and federal funding sources without long-term guarantees. The estimated cost: $300 million. Even if pre-K is expanded, many districts would have trouble finding space for it and would likely have to contract with community agencies.

Here are some debates and conflicts in individual school districts to watch out for in 2020:

Bedford faces declining enrollment: The school district is working on a “long-range facilities plan” in the face of a demographic report that projects continued student enrollment declines. The district has tried to de-emphasize the possibility of closing an elementary school. Parents have formed a group to dispute some of the demographic findings and lobby against the possibility of school closures. The district is set to make a decision in June.  

East Ramapo elections in spotlight: A trial is likely in February on a lawsuit that challenges how school board members are elected in East Ramapo. In November, U.S. District Court Judge Cathy Seibel denied an attempt by the school district to dismiss the lawsuit, filed in 2017 by the Spring Valley chapter of the NAACP and several black and Latino voters. The plaintiffs contend that the current at-large voting system makes it easier for the Orthodox Jewish community to elect board members who favor the community’s many private schools. They are seeking a ward system that they say would produce a more representative school board.

Greenburgh mulls facilities: Greenburgh voters rejected the district’s $115 million bond proposal in March. It was the largest proposed school bond in Westchester’s history. The plan was to sell two school buildings, build one new one and overhaul other facilities. Since the vote, Greenburgh’s administration has moved out of its old building due to unsafe conditions, and has postponed work on a new bond proposal to deal with more pressing concerns. The district plans to undergo a comprehensive community survey before taking another run at a bond vote.

John Jay to replace Indians: The Katonah-Lewisboro school board made a unanimous decision in November to retire John Jay High School’s “Indians” mascot, citing concerns that the mascot conflicted with board’s goal of inclusion. It was a controversial topic in the community, but not an uncommon choice in an era when schools are increasingly focused on cultural sensitivity. The district has formed a steering committee of students, teachers, administrators and parents to identify options for a new mascot and hopes to choose a new mascot in April.

New Rochelle’s divisions: Many in the New Rochelle community opposed the Board of Education’s hiring of Laura Feijoo as superintendent, in large part because of her participation in a reverse-discrimination lawsuit against the New York City schools. When Feijoo suspended beloved high school football coach Lou DiRienzo two weeks after taking office in November, that opposition intensified. The New Rochelle Federation of United School Employees called for Feijoo’s resignation, and the Inter-religious Council of New Rochelle has promised to monitor Feijoo’s performance and, if necessary, call for her dismissal. Through it all, the school board has stood by Feijoo, who will have to begin to try to win over the community in 2020.

Suffern’s superintendent in limbo: It’s been almost a year (March 7) since the Suffern Board of Education voted 4-3 to suspend veteran Superintendent Douglas Adams. The board would bring 20 disciplinary charges against him. The board still has not scheduled a hearing on those charges, which is required under Adams’ contract. Board President Matthew Kern said in the fall that the board expected to begin a hearing in November or December, but that delays were possible as a “pre-hearing related discovery process” was ongoing. Adams continues to be paid while his case is unresolved.

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