BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) -- An Albany-bound bus became a rolling civics classroom for Samantha Heva and other Olean High School students Wednesday when they clambered aboard in support of more state funding for schools.
In a scene played out in all corners of the state, Heva, 17, and several classmates took seats among parents, teachers and administrators on chartered buses to Albany, where hundreds met and marched on the state Capitol later in the day.
"What is a public school without the interest of the public," Heva said by phone as the bus rolled east from its Southern Tier starting point.
The effort organizers called the Educate NY Now Express tour was a response to financial hardships facing New York's 700 school districts, following losses of state education aid combined with a new property tax cap that limits what districts can raise through tax hikes.
Olean is facing a $1.2 million deficit next year, Superintendent Colleen Taggerty said. District officials are considering cuts to non-mandated programs such as music, art, sports, pre-kindergarten and kindergarten. The district closed two elementary schools last year to save money amid declining enrollment and the cash crunch.
"What more can we reduce and still have quality programming for our youth," Taggerty said from aboard the bus.
She saw the bus trip and rally as a leadership and learning opportunity for the students whose programs are at risk.
"We understand that New York state is financially strapped just like every school district," she said. "We're just asking that they stop reducing the funds, stop cutting, and that they become a little more responsive to how can we help facilitate to continue to keep school districts solvent."
Rally organizers said the state has fallen billions of dollars behind on a 2007 agreement to adequately fund schools. The agreement followed a lawsuit by the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, which recently wrote to Gov. Andrew Cuomo and legislators saying the state was violating its constitutional obligation to educate its children.
Advocates want the state to relax policies tying school aid increases to personal income and capping the property tax.
"We have a school finance system that, by design, is broken because it means the money adds up to more cuts in the classroom every single year from now on," said Billy Easton, executive director of the Alliance for Quality Education.
Cuomo, who pushed the property tax cap to slow future growth of rates that are among the highest in the nation, said the 4 percent increase in school aid he included in this year's budget was significant.
"What else in your life has gone up 4 percent? Most peoples' income hasn't gone up 4 percent, their home value hasn't gone up 4 percent, their savings account hasn't gone up 4 percent," he said in Albany. "That is a significant increase. At what point can you get water out of a stone?
"If they are saying we need to raise taxes higher in this state to fund more than a 4 percent increase in education, I disagree," he said.
Cuomo's budget increased school aid by $805 million, but districts said it didn't compensate for a $1.3 billion cut a year ago or a $1.4 billion cut the year before that. Districts have eliminated more than 30,000 teaching and support positions in the past three years, according to the New York State United Teachers union.
"We need to ask our governor and legislators, please give our children the same opportunity we had," parent Kelly Walker said before boarding a bus at Buffalo, where her 9-, 11- and 13-year-old children attend Houghton Academy, School No. 69.
Walker said her children lost access to lessons when the instrumental music program was cut this year, and she lost a bargaining chip. Her children have to get good grades to take part in any extras.
"I would like to see our children want to go to school as well as achieve academically," she said.
Associated Press Writer Michael Gormley contributed to this report from Albany.