Wednesday, March 23, 2011
Weather And Financial Forecast
The combination of a winter that is refusing to give way to spring; and the prolonged economic crisis that continues to linger, has left many of us more than a little depressed. I think we are all anxiously awaiting the chance to move forward and leave both of these issues behind. Unfortunately, we have no control over the peculiar habits of Mother Nature, and our school has only slightly more influence over the economic troubles that we face regarding state aid to education in New York.
What we do have is the ability to respond to those challenges that are beyond our control. We can get our snow shovels out, put snow tires on our car, dress in warmer clothes, and persist in contending with the harsh winter weather. Similarly, we can examine our budget, revisit our priorities, increase our efficiency, meet with our state political representatives, and maintain the pursuit of our mission to prepare graduates for success in citizenship, college, and career.
We’re running out of alternatives. We’ve exhausted our allotted number of “snow days” for this school year, and we’ve nearly exhausted our funding sources for next year in the wake of a significant reduction in the aid we receive from the state under the budget proposed by Governor Cuomo. Our school district will lose more than $560,000 compared to what we received last year. Last year, Green Island received $515,000 less than the year before that. This means that during the last two years we have experienced a decrease in state funding of more than $1,000,000. That is a very large amount for a school district with a total annual budget of less than $7,000,000.
Where is state aid going and what are we doing with it? After all, Governor Cuomo claims that schools can absorb this cut in state aid if they just used their reserve funds. In simplistic terms, we have two different accounts for our funds, like you may have at home. Our operating budget meets the need of regular and anticipated expenses, like your checking account meets monthly household expenses. Our reserve funds are much like your savings accounts. The money is not meant for daily expenses like groceries or monthly charges like car payments, but for those rainy day one-time expenses, like when the hot water heater breaks down or the car needs unexpected repairs. Our rainy day fund is like a taxpayer savings account that covers the costs we bear if: people successfully challenge their assessments; we experience unexpected repair costs; we must pay unemployment compensation and retirement and health care costs for potential retirees. We are required by the state to maintain these funds. Last year, to avoid staff and program cuts beyond the 5.6 positions eliminated and the loss of several extra-curricular programs we took more than $300,000 out of our reserve funds to meet our budget. If we make a habit of using our savings for regular and predictable expenses that occur over and over, then we will have nothing left for the unanticipated events in the future - in other words, when the well runs dry. At the rate we have been tapping into our reserve funds the well has only three more years left.
We must respond to this financial crisis. We must do so with strategic decisions designed to balance the capacity of local taxpayers, preserve the instructional integrity of our school district, and protect the future opportunities for our learners – who will one day become workers and taxpayers that we will all depend on during our own retirements. These youngsters are your sons and daughters, grandsons and granddaughters, nieces and nephews, neighbors and fellow residents. They will become voters who will shape policy and programs that will impact the rest of us in the years ahead. How do we want to prepare them for this important responsibility? Do we expect less of these children than we expected for ourselves? What role will we all play in their pursuit of hopes and dreams? What will we tell them in the years ahead when they reflect and ask about our decisions during the financial issues of 2011?
Here’s what our school board and I are analyzing as we prepare a budget to submit to Green Island voters on May 17. First, we are waiting for accurate and definitive budget figures from the state. At this point the numbers they have discussed are proposals and subject to political arm wrestling among the governor, senate, and assembly. While we await the final figures we are monitoring enrollment, reviewing the needs for staff within all of the employee work groups, observing state and federally mandated programs, and using more reserve funds to cover deficits.
In addition, we are making every effort to demonstrate the value of investing in our school district. This year we introduced an on-line program that helps prevent drop-outs by offering learners an opportunity to recover credit for previously failed classes. For next year, we are expanding our high school course offerings with on-line elective classes so our learners can compete with graduates of other schools in college and careers by enriching their learning possibilities. We cannot lose sight of our purpose. We must convince parents in Green Island that we are the school of choice to serve their children. Every time we have a child withdraw from our school to attend an alternative school we experience a loss in the state aid we would otherwise receive for that child, plus the increased costs of tuition to charter schools, and the price of transportation to private and parochial schools (which we are required by the state to provide). At this time we have six children from Green Island attending a nearby charter school that costs the district a yearly total of $84,000 in tuition. That means we have to reduce our operating budget by $84,000 to balance our budget. If we keep cutting instructional programs we may experience the departure of even more learners – and lose more money.
Here’s why education in New York is a good investment:
· Education Week released its annual “Quality Counts” report showing New York’s schools rank number two in the nation on policy and performance. Our schools earned an overall grade of B, second only to Maryland with a grade of B+.
· New York Schools rank first in the nation when it comes to closing the achievement gap in fourth-grade reading and eighth-grade math.
· New York’s students rank third in the nation for their Advanced Placement test scores.
· New York ranks fourth in the nation for improving high school graduation rates70.6% compared to 68.8% nationally.
· New York ranks fourth in the nation for the percent of adults enrolled in college or with postsecondary degrees.
· New York consistently ranks at or near the top in the prestigious Intel Science Talent Search. In fact, more than one-third of this year’s semi-finalists are from New York.
Here’s what our state leaders can do to help public schools minimize cuts to programs and services:
Support meaningful mandate relief
· Create regional health insurance pools to leverage district buying power and standardize benefits and contribution rates for all public school employees.
· Provide pension reform for more predictability of employer contribution rates, possibly requiring all public employees to contribute more toward their pensions.
· Streamline New York’s tangle of special education requirements, many of which far exceed federal requirements and significantly drive up education costs without demonstrating a corresponding improvement in education outcomes.
· Oppose shifting millions in summer school-age special education costs from the state to school districts. It is unfair and unwise to create new unfunded mandates at a time when schools are already facing significant state aid cuts, rising costs and intense pressure to hold down property taxes.
· Exempt schools from the state’s Wicks Law, which would provide long-term capital and debt service savings to school districts and the state.
Object to the governor’s tax cap bill
While a tax cap is viewed as a potential benefit for taxpayers, it comes at a steep cost to our school children. The governor’s tax cap bill is particularly troubling because it would be among the most restrictive in the nation. Under this bill, school districts that experience budget defeats would not be able to raise their tax levies at all. It also fails to exempt mandated increases in health and pension costs outside district control.
We urge our lawmakers to look at the impact of tax caps in California and Massachusetts. Massachusetts enacted a tax cap, but the state took on a greater responsibility for funding its public schools and implemented sensible reforms. And today they’re ranked third in the nation – right behind New York’s public schools. California, on the other hand, established a cap at the same time it cut state aid for education, causing a now legendary downward spiral that it has yet to recover from.
Oppose cuts in incentive aid paid to school districts using shared services from BOCES
The 47 school districts in the Capital Region and surrounding areas would see a loss of more than $6.1 million in BOCES Aid in 2012-13 under this proposal. BOCES has helped districts achieve greater efficiencies and economies of scale through shared services. There is a serious disconnect when the Executive Budget would pull support from proven regional cooperatives, only to turn around and create a new pot of money to reward districts for efficiencies.
In fact, the time is right to strengthen the role of BOCES by enacting at least some of the recommendations of the New York State Commission on Property Tax Relief and the Commission on Local Government Efficiency and Competitiveness, such as allowing municipalities to take advantage of BOCES programs.
Extend the “Millionaire Tax” – a surcharge on 2% of the wealthiest New Yorkers
This will offset devastating cuts and prevent higher property tax burdens on working families. While banks, corporations and Wall Street investors are recovering from the meltdown with record profits, the rest of the state is still struggling with unemployment, depressed property values, skyrocketing health insurance costs and stagnant wages. Is it fair to demand sacrifices from everyone except the wealthiest New Yorkers? Estimates show that extending the tax would result in more than $1 billion in tax revenues for 2011-12 and up to $5 billion in 2012-13.