EI Talks Advocacy with Legislators

It was educational funding advocacy week in East Islip, beginning with the March 18 Rally for Equity in Education Funding at the Duryea State Building in Hauppauge, spearheaded by East Islip PTA’s Legislative Action Committee and their burgeoning Save Long Island Schools Facebook page, and continuing with the East Islip School District’s Advocate for Fair Funding email campaign to address the inequality in New York State aid distributed to local school districts.

This series of advocacy events culminated in a legislative breakfast meeting with representatives from state and county government, held at the East Islip School District board room on March 23. In this productive round-table discussion, district administrators and community leaders worked together to encourage advocacy and find solutions.

Participants included a quartet of local lawmakers – State Sen. John Flanagan, State Sen. Owen Johnson, State Sen. Lee Zeldin and Suffolk County Legislator Tom Cilmi – as well as East Islip Board of Education members Glenn Reed, Ken Cronin, Kim G. Phillips and Joseph G. Sargent, Superintendent John J. Finello, Assistant Superintendent for Instruction and Personnel Alise Becker-Santa, plant and facilities administrator Robert Tartaglia, Sen. Johnson’s district office manager Gordon D. Canary, East Islip PTA Council President Bonnie Buckley, East Islip PTA Council First Vice President Patricia Blair, PTA Council member Maureen Meier, SEPTA President Frank Fritz, JFK Elementary PTA’s First Vice President Susan Kavanagh and Lex Konnerth, the founder of East Islip Music and Arts Program Support (eiMAPS).

Several East Islip students were also present, including seventh-grader Amanda Baranek and high school seniors Rory Buckley, Kayleigh Cook and Raymond O’Connor. Middle school musician Baranek reprised her reading from the March Board of Education monthly meeting, a moving essay detailing the personal and educational value of music. That sentiment was echoed by Cook, who plans to study music in college this fall. O’Connor spoke of the underrated importance of extracurricular activities in obtaining college acceptances, as well as his enriching athletic experiences as part of the track and cross-country teams.

Before presenting “The Challenge of Budget Development” slideshow, Superintendent Finello acknowledged the legislators and their deep contributions to East Islip’s welfare, and asked them to assist the district and community in finding lasting budget and funding relief. His presentation made clear the severity of the budget situation and illustrated just how much the gap in New York State aid to East Islip is widening, thus spurring the urgency of the discussions. “The state should be living up to the standards we set on Long Island,” he said. “Instead of bringing us down, let’s raise the bar up for others across the state.”

“We support our schools and have already taken a beating here,” said Buckley, a self-described “tenacious and persistent” activist for East Islip’s schoolchildren, who she believes will all be impacted by any proposed budget cuts. She noted that the district is doing less with more every year, and said, “I believe every child in New York State is entitled to a Long Island-quality education, but they should pay their fair share for it.”

Sen. Zeldin acknowledged the fact that more equity in state educational funding is a necessity. “Long Island got shortchanged,” he said, “and we want to raise it up.”

“The upstaters think we are rich and they are poor,” added Sen. Johnson. “They’re living high off the hog and don’t want to know the truth.”
“A four-pronged coalition” is what the situation demands, explained Buckley, stating that for positive change to come to East Islip, four parties – the local taxpayers, the district administration, the state government and the district’s employees – need to come together so that the goals of finding both savings and more equitable financial aid can be met.

Mandate relief emerged as a prominent topic of consensus, with Board President Reed calling it “The single biggest thing I’d like to see happen in my lifetime.” All present agreed that the Legislative Action Committee was best served by what Zeldin identified as “disciplined, tight messaging,” noting that the message of last weekend’s Equity in Education Funding rally was heard loud and clear by his senate colleagues, and that mandate relief was an ideal issue for advocacy. Flanagan agreed, supporting the idea of getting government engaged on mandate relief.

“We’re truly grateful that the PTA’s Legislative Action Committee was able to arrange for the senators and legislator to come here during state budget season and spend time talking with us,” concluded Board President Glenn Reed.