The Wyandanch school board has taken draconian measures forced by the community’s rejection of a second budget proposal put forth by the trustees. Firings, layoffs and restructuring will reduce to a bare minimum the services provided to some of Long Island’s highest-needs students. Of course, the cuts will basically eliminate the extracurricular offerings for young people who rely on them to include on their resumes for college and as safe havens.
How did the district’s situation reach such dire straits? How is it that students who live across the street from the boundaries of the Wyandanch school district in a highly regarded district like Half Hollow Hills, for example, can avail themselves of so many opportunities that the students in Wyandanch never could even before the budget defeats?
Much of the blame can be placed at the feet of men like “master builder” Robert Moses, who laid out the physical and psychological landscape of Long Island that facilitates the kind of segregation that research done at Hofstra University’s National Center for Suburban Studies demonstrates to be among the most rigid in the country. The original sins of Moses — and others — continue to sap the humanity of Long Island and those who occupy the 124 school districts that, counterintuitively, provide the most to those who need it the least, and the least to those who need it the most.
The problem could not be clearer or more historic in nature. In 1993, an advocacy organization called the Campaign for Fiscal Equity sued New York State, claiming that distribution of state aid to education did not provide for children to receive their constitutionally guaranteed right to “a sound basic education.” After the case bounced around in the courts for more than a decade, the state Court of Appeals ruled in CFE’s favor in 2006, finding that the state did not provide adequate funding to schools that served students with high needs. Further, the court directed the state to allocate $5.5 billion in additional aid statewide over a phase-in period from 2007 to 2011.
That sounds like a measured legal remedy that would even the playing field for districts like Wyandanch, with little or no commercial property, to offset the tax burdens of homeowners who struggle to survive in one of the costliest regions of the country. We learned in school that we live in a nation of laws, except in a case like this one.
Since the decision by the Court of Appeals, until the present day, governors of both political parties did not implement the court’s decision by establishing a funding mechanism to properly finance the additional $5.5 billion in state aid to our state’s most hard-pressed districts that New York’s highest court mandated. As individuals, we must abide by the dictates of the courts, whether we deem them fair or not. Acting for the state, our leaders continue to take it upon themselves to defy the courts.
One can only hope that in the near future we find the will and the way to guarantee that our Long Island schools serve as engines of social mobility not impediments to social mobility.
But what about the Wyandanch High School Class of 2020? Those students get only one chance to be seniors. One chance to take challenging classes that will put them in contention for admission to top colleges and universities. One chance to participate in sports, performing arts, and other programs that broaden their perspectives and provide them with outlets for talents that must be nurtured. One chance to be young and to feel that they can, with hard work and determination, accomplish great things.
How will they cope with the despair that comes from being a part of something deemed second-rate, at best? Who will speak for them and restore that one chance that will begin in just two months?
Does anybody really care?
Michael Cohen is a retired former superintendent of the Brentwood school district.