Tax cap bad news for school districts

Karen Ruben

The impacts of misguided governmental policies on public education were brought home at the Great Neck School board meeting, March 11, which began with the first public presentation of the proposed 2013-14 budget and included cuts to staffing for the first time “to make ends meet,” and ended with a desperate plea by a 30-year school worker to save her job.

 Two years shy of retirement age, the woman, who works as a matron in a middle school, is likely to lose her job – along with the full-time equivalent of 41.6 school personnel – because of the demands on the district to finance $8 million without property tax revenue to meet the state’s cap on property tax increases, while at the same time being forced to make mandated increases of nearly $6 million in spending for pensions, health benefits and a set-aside in case Nassau County makes the district responsible for tax refunds.

 The tax cap limits property tax increases to 2 percent or the CPI, whichever is less, but because of a complicated formula, Great Neck can increase its tax revenue by 3.14 percent before triggering the need for a supermajority (60 percent) to adopt its budget in the May election, instead of a simple majority.  The perversity of giving a minority a bigger vote is in my mind a violation of one-person, one-vote and equal protection, but that is only one of the grotesque aspects of the property tax cap.

 Now here’s the rub: the proposed budget calls for $14,102,366 more in spending – 98.5 percent of the which is contractual or mandated – when under the budget cap, only $5,872,698 more can be raised from property taxes (and property taxes generate 97 percent of our budget). How do you cut or finance the $8,229,668 difference “between what we needed to raise the budget to sustain or maintain the instructional program we currently have?” as John Powell, assistant superintendent for business, put it.

 The solution that the administration and board found this year was to cut spending, reduce contingency funds and tap into its reserves, to the tune of $4.8 million, or more than half of discrepancy.

 But this solution is not sustainable. And it will not be too much longer before the only thing left to slash cut to the heart of the educational programs.

 The state’s property tax cap has only been in effect for a couple of years. Nonetheless, this is the first Great Neck  budget where the school district is actually forced to cut teaching staff in order not to exceed the tax cap. It will not be the last.

 The district is cutting the equivalent of 41.6 full time staff, including teachers (two special education teachers) and paraprofessionals, out of a total staff of 675 full-time equivalent teachers. This year, most of the cuts are not actual people but involve cutting back hours and eliminating some part-time positions. Again, there is only so much of this “low hanging fruit” available before you have to cut to the heart.

 The only way we are not forced to cut even more deeply into educational programs is that we are able to tap $4.8 million from its reserves. There is about $34 million in the reserves now, built up over years of prudent fiscal planning, taking advantage of changing interest rates and borrowing costs, and because the budget practice used to prudently set aside close to $1 million a year to cover contingencies. 

But the district hasn’t set aside for contingencies in several years. 

I frankly don’t understand people’s resentment, including the fellow who raised the issue at the hearing, as well as Gov. Cuomo who refers to school districts’ reserves as if this was a school board’s personal stash. Having that reserve meant our school district could recover easily after Hurricane Sandy. It could meet the unanticipated challenges. But the new rules for budgeting mean there will be no reserve in a matter of a few years. 

For several years that I can recall, the budget process has been one of “cutting to the bare bone” – to get through the economic hardships which frankly have been a complaint for a decade. I can’t remember any year when there wasn’t wailing and moaning over how horrible the economy was and how high property taxes are. It just got really intense and desperate after 2008’s crash.

Teachers and administrators did their part, giving up increases. But education is not like a factory; it is a people-business, and so instruction accounts for 74.4 percent of the total budget.

But the demands on public school budgets – from state-mandated increases in contributions to pensions and health care and programs such as new anti-bullying regimes and stepped up security – and now with Nassau County seeking to make school districts liable for repayment of tax certioraris, would mean that year in and year out this district along with every other one will have to cut and cut and cut staff.

 I call this cannibalization. Eating our young. 

This is already happening to other school districts around Long Island and New York State which have been forced to cut everything not specifically required by the core curriculum – eliminating all extracurricular activities, science research, music, art and theater, sports teams, and clubs. And many have had to eliminate so many teachers, class sizes have been increased to the 40-50 range. Schools now hold bake sales and auctions to raise money to cover what used to be included in a budget.

 Here in Great Neck, our school district has been able to uphold its highest priority: to preserve low-class size (in fact, Great Neck has the lowest class size in K-5 on Long Island). It is key to fulfilling its mission which is to provide the best education for all children, regardless of their abilities; to nurture each child to achieve their full potential.

If the district did not spend the $4.8 million from its reserves, we would have been in the same boat as the rest of the districts, here and around the country. It is no secret why America’s public educational system lags behind other nations (ranking 17th in the world): there is a concerted strategy to “starve the beast.”

Indeed, we are drawing upon the reserves to stave off the impact of $2.261,000 liability if Nassau County is successful in shifting the responsibility for repaying tax certioaris onto school districts (as well as every other taxing municipality).

 If the county is successful in appealing the decision which found its repeal of the guarantee “unconstitutional,” that would mean that each and every year, $2 million of our budget – that is $2 million of the $6 million we would be allowed to raise – would have to be used to repay refunds, rather than educating children.

 “It would be an understatement to say this was one of the most difficult budgets I have ever been involved in developing in my over 29 years of assisting in developing budgets,” Powell said in introducing the budget at the March 11 school board meeting. “Compiling a budget where 98.5 percent of the increase was contractual or mandated is not an easy task.”

 During the budget hearing, a mother stood up and said, “We do such a good job here of educating children, I don’t want [cuts] to hurt the classroom. Protect what we do, the classroom. If you have to look at any cuts, protect what we do Monday-Friday when our kids are in the classroom, and look at the other things first, where there is wiggle room, before it hits the teachers. Ultimately we will suffer the most in classroom. Our goal should be to look at other avenues outside the school day.”

 That sort of plea goes only so far, as other school districts have found. But frankly, what our children learn and experience in clubs, in science research, in theater, music and arts, in sports , in Model UN and Model Congress, Robotics, DECA, the school newspaper, are just as important, perhaps even more important to our children’s development and  ultimate success and fulfillment as adults.

On the other hand, the accountability movement and the obsession with testing (and the inevitability of “teaching to the test” even in Great Neck) contradicts what students should be learning to be successful in the 21st century’s globalized economy: You can’t become independent thinkers, innovators and problem solvers if you are taught that there is a specific right answer.

But this is the fulfillment of the right-wing agenda which is determined to destroy public education, destroy teachers’ unions, and to  steer public money into for-profit charter schools, private schools and parochial schools, and ultimately, encourage a parochial way of conformity  rather than independent thinking.

As Valerie Strauss wrote in the Washington Post: The Republican Party of Texas wrote into its 2012 Platform,  “We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.”

“It opposes, among other things, early childhood education, sex education, and multicultural education, but supports ‘school subjects with emphasis on the Judeo-Christian principles upon which America was founded’.

“When taken with the other parts of the education platform, it seems a fair conclusion that the GOP Party in Texas doesn’t think much of public education. Unfortunately, this notion isn’t limited to the GOP in Texas but is more commonly being seen across the country by some of the most strident of ‘school reformers’,” Strauss wrote.

And in contrast to the dismal results of American public education after 12 years of No Child Left Behind, Great Neck’s students have had great success – we have some of the highest graduation rates, our kids go on to great colleges and careers.   And this is despite the fact we actually have a high percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced lunch than is typical of high-performing suburban districts.

 And because our schools always top every list of the best in the nation (and would be models for the nation except that the ‘models’ they look for today are not traditional public schools), our home values are double what they would otherwise command. The vast majority of people who come to Great Neck do so for the schools. If our schools deteriorate, you will see home values dive, as well.

The fact is, we get tremendous value for our public school dollars – and each year, each budget is evaluated on a zero-based system, with every dollar and every cent justified.

The tax cap, like sequester in the federal budget, is intended to “starve the beast” of government – in this case, public education (and I don’t care that Gov. Cuomo, a Democrat, pushed for it. It is the same assault on public education and teacher unions).

One way you know this to be true is because the formula for assessing the tax cap does not take into account increasing school enrollment or the distribution of special needs children, or new arrivals to the country who do not speak English.

But let’s look at enrollment: here is Great Neck, enrollment for 2013-14 is expected to go up by 65 students, to 6375; K-5 enrollment is expected to increase from 2486 to 2520; middle school is expected to decrease by five students to 1545 and high school enrollment (the most expensive) is expected to increase from 2374 to 2310. That alone adds $1,560,000 to the operating budget.

 In addition, the school district pays the tuition for 39 students who attend school in other settings (I’m betting at more than $24,000 cost).

 And in answer to that guy who seemed offended by taking the budget and simply dividing by the 6375 student enrollment to get a per pupil cost of something like $33,000 (the actual amount is more in the range of $24,000), the school district actually has obligations for 1500 students who attend parochial and private schools. The budget includes $1.5 million to cover transportation, textbooks, nursing care.

 Indeed, the numbers of people who benefit from our public schools go beyond our children; thousands participate in adult learning, including GED and English Language Courses, which though included in the operating budget, actually recoup $600,000 in revenue for the district.

 But let’s look at some other mandates: Academic Intervention – something that Great Neck had actually always offered as part of its mission statement, but now is mandated under the state’s version of No Child Left Behind – that costs $1 million. 

And now let’s look at security costs, a massive focus in this district ever since Columbine, and now again after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. During the same meeting as the budget hearing, we heard from the district’s supervisor of security, Chris Tevlin, who reported on new security protocols and expedited capital improvements including new door locks, new entranceways, expanded video surveillance and new procedures to enter buildings.

Security as a line item in the 2013-14 budget amounts to $2,013,000 (a combination of the district’s own security staff, contractual staff, equipment and supplies, not including the capital improvements), which is 13.5% more than the current year. This figure has grown exponentially; it was $1,025,000 in the 2005-6 budget. 

But hey, America would rather spend money on security than actually teaching, and would rather arm schools than stop criminals and maniacs from having access to weapons of wanton destruction. I call this the NRA tax.

 The man who questioned why the school district has a reserve and who complained that school taxes have possibly reached a “tipping point”, when told that the district is looking for ways to increase revenue other than property taxes, for example, changing its policy to require groups like Great Neck PAL and CYO to actually reimburse the district for the expense of using its facilities, the same man objected, saying that as taxpayers, PAL parents already pay. 

But without missing a beat, he then questioned why the Great Neck Park District is exempted from paying a fee to use of school facilities (the answer is that the municipalities cooperate and the school district has use of park district facilities at no charge, as well). 

What I never understood is that people do not balk at private school tuitions of $33,000 a year or college tuitions of $50,000 a year, but somehow think that quality public school education, should be virtually free. 

But here’s the reality: the average cost per pupil is about $24,000 and worth every penny. And if you have two kids in school, that would be $48,000 in after-tax dollars if you had to pay out of pocket, a year, so for their K-12 careers, you are talking about $624,000. Think of property taxes as a way of amortizing that cost over 30 years, so even though you may no longer have children in the school system, you still owe your share. And it’s tax deductible.

 Here’s another irony: the same guy who asked for more information questioned why the district provides a table to show that its tax rate, at $489.555 is second to lowest in Long Island (Hewlett-Woodmere’s rate is $1141.560), even compared to districts where home values are comparable.

 This district has long ago realized that opening up participation in the budget process, letting light shine on where tax dollars are spent, is the best way to insure broad community support – which has been demonstrated in its budgets being passed by overwhelming majorities (school and library budgets are the only ones taxpayers actually get to vote on directly).

This school district provides more information than any other, and more opportunities for the public to participate and be engaged in the budget process.

 This year, you can attend a line-by-line review of the budget where the district accounts for every cent of its proposed allocation, on Saturday, April 6, beginning at 9:30 am at the south High library. If you want to question how much Baker will spend on postage, this is the place to do it

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Karen Ruben

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