You could call it a civics lesson field trip.
Early Saturday morning, students from Hannibal High School’s Save Our School group sat in a cafeteria at Sandy Creek Central School, waiting to meet their state legislators.
The occasion was a breakfast meeting between school district officials from around the county and some of the state lawmakers who represent them. The students were not invited, but showed up to seize the opportunity to lobby directly for help to keep their sports, music and arts.
Hannibal faces a severe problem. The loss of 5% of its state aid, along with planned increases in salaries, expenses and state-mandated retirement fund contributions, has blown a $1.7 million hole in its approximately $25 million budget.
District officials have said that the district could cut all non-required spending and still only fill about half of the deficit. The cuts would include all sports, music and arts.
“Smile and tell him what you want to tell him,” was the advice of Superintendent Mike DiFabio to the students about the impending arrival of State Senator Darrel Aubertine.
The students sat in two rows at lunch tables, each wearing a white T-shirt bearing the SOS logo and message.
Aubertine arrived moments later and the group’s leaders rose to greet him. They gave him one of their T-shirts and a packet of letters from people upset about the possible loss of extracurricular activities.
“They’re about to cut all our arts, music and sports,” said student Zach Welling. “It’s all our community has and it keeps us in school.”
“It’s not law yet,” said Aubertine about the Governor’s proposed cuts.
He explained to the students that wealthy downstate districts get as little as 5% of their revenue from state aid, while Hannibal receives 80% of its income from state aid. He said the Governor decided to cut 5% of state aid from all districts as a way of being fair about the cuts, but “5% of 80% is a whole lot more than 5% of 5%.”
“We feel for decades we’ve been getting the short end of the stick,” he said.
“Kids are going to be going to school just for the basics,” said one student. “We need a lot more to succeed,” said another.
Referring again to the struggle with downstate political interested, Aubertine answered, “They are cutting programs of want. We are cutting programs of need.”
Aubertine said that he would be spending the weekend in Albany working on the budget. His plan: Find money in the budget for projects that he feels can wait another year or two and move that money to education funding or other areas.
He said there were at least two possibilities. Selling some rarely-used power plants owned by the state Power Authority and delaying construction of a statewide data center could provide funds.
State Assemblyman Will Barclay joined the meeting at this point. “My hope is to get some restoration aid in (the budget) for low wealth school districts,” he said. “We want to make sure it’s driven to the schools.”
When the 20 minute meeting ended, students came up and shook the lawmakers’ hands.
Sandy Creek Superintendent Stewart Amell stopped by to see the students off. “Be optimistic and keep fighting,” he advised, as he sent a tray full of donuts to the students to eat on the bus ride home.