Pulse of the Peninsula: ‘Yes’ on budgets, ‘No’ on tax caps

Pulse of the Peninsula: ‘Yes’ on budgets, ‘No’ on tax caps

On Tuesday, May 21, the community should come out in support of the school and library budgets, which are subject to a vote.

After that, this community and every other one that values and respects public education should press for a repeal of the property tax cap, which is a cancer that will eventually but inevitably destroy public education.

The school and library are the only budgets that voters actually vote directly on – not the federal, state, county, town, park district are directly voted. 

It is because of that fact – as well as the reality that school taxes represent almost two-thirds of what we pay for local property taxes (because that’s the way this society has decided to pay for public education) that school budgets get the brunt of taxpayer ire and frustration. 

Long Islanders feel particularly cheated – justifiably so -since we have 17 percent of the state’s student enrollments but get back only 13 percent of the state’s school aid, and even that is tremendously disproportionately allocated; some districts like Roosevelt (and New York City) get as much as half of their budgets paid for out of state aid, while Great Neck gets just 3 percent of our budget from state aid. 

Indeed, 92 percent of our budget comes from property taxes. 

You might applaud the policy behind that discrepancy, the theory being that needy districts that don’t have commercial base and high property values need more help from the state income tax, but then you don’t also say that districts are not allowed to raise their own money and create a budget to support an educational program that the community chooses.

Make no mistake, the property tax cap being touted by Gov. Cuomo and New York State’s business developers in commercials extolling the “new New York” is no different in its destructive impact than the sequester that is depressing the nation’s economy and most assuredly will stifle any investment in infrastructure, education and just about everything else we look to government for. The result of this short-sighted policy will be the same as failing to invest up front in early childhood education and quality education thereafter: as a society we wind up paying far more in remediation, restoration and repair, and deficits will grow because of depressed wages and income taxes.

The tax cap gives the minority tyranny over the majority, since a supermajority  of 60 percent would be required to pass a school budget that pierces the cap. Think about that.

The cap eliminates local control over our public education; it basically says that the elected school board members from our community somehow benefit or have something to gain by exerting unnecessary fiscal pain on their taxpaying neighbors, rather than recognizing their responsibility to all constituents who often have contrary objectives – students, parents, school staff, residents who no longer have children in school or never had, and pretty much all of them taxpayers.

Our school budget will fall within the cap (which because of a complicated formula is 3.14 percent this year), so a simple majority will be what is required, even though historically our community has supported our schools and libraries by large majorities. 

And the school budget deserves our support, because it – almost miraculously given the constraints – upholds the quality of our public schools that are the envy of the nation, and is the singular reason that most families move to Great Neck, keeping our home values high even as they fall all around us.

The cap this year meant that the district could increase spending by only $5.9 million, when total increases – the vast majority, 98.5 percent mandated by the state or contract – amounted to $14 million. That meant that the district had to cut or otherwise finance $8 million more. Think about that.

It brings to mind that image from Exodus, “Make bricks, more bricks, but without straw.”

The biggest chunk in increases was mandated for allocations for pensions and health care. As much as people like to vilify public workers for the audacity of having pensions and health care (for which they make contributions in higher amounts and which are much less generous than a generation ago),  these people deserve these benefits, especially because of all that is expected and demanded of the professionals we charge with the responsibility of educating the future leaders and scientists of this nation. Increasingly, today, teachers also are responsible for all the personal issues going on in a child’s life (even affluent households have domestic problems) as well as for nurturing this child to fulfill their full potential. 

They are underpaid for what we expect from them, especially if we expect to draw people who otherwise would have the capability of earning six-figure salaries in private business, especially in this age of accountability (which is constant scrutiny and micro-managing) and compensation formulas based on results (as if students are widgets). But the comparative generosity of benefits compared to salary goes back generations because that’s the way taxpayers preferred to compensate their educators (who were supposed to be women who had a husband to take care of such things as food, clothes and shelter for the family).

The way the district “financed” the extra $8 million is through a combination of cuts, but also funding it through its reserves.

This solution is not sustainable. For years now, the district has been cutting to the bone. And it will not be too much longer before the only thing left to slash cut to the heart of the educational programs: teachers.

Every school board meeting I attend, there are reports of new mandates from on high – teacher evaluations, more testing, a new core curriculum, academic intervention, new anti-bullying measures, more testing, and now, new school security measures. These may or may not be worthy (I am not an advocate of more testing and have definite issues with the way teacher evaluations are being implemented), but they all entail a cost.

And yet, school districts, regardless of how many students have special needs or how many students sit in classrooms or have to be bused to private and parochial schools, are all under the same thumb of the property tax cap, as if the direct vote by taxpayers on whether or not to accept a budget weren’t enough.

To meet the property tax cap, all of those who value public education as the greatest democratizing force we have in this country have to be concerned of what is happening to public education generally, and even Great Neck’s much lauded system is not immune. 

This same pattern of tax caps and cuts in education aid are not just resulting in school districts cutting out every aspect of school not specifically mandated, but actually school districts facing bankruptcy, as headlines from California, Idaho, Michigan and Pennsylvania to list but a few, proclaim.

When you sit in on the Saturday, line-by-line budget review, you get a sense of how public schools are so much more than a teacher delivering a lesson in a classroom. There are the consultants needed for environmental review, insurance requirements, electricity and telecommunications, bus contracts and now massive increases in public safety. 

This year’s meeting was a lot more somber than previous years, a lot more like seeing the writing on the wall, and it isn’t pretty. You don’t hear about innovations being introduced into the classroom, like Smart Boards. You hear about all that is being done to keep class sizes low.

“This is the first year we have reached into reserves to mitigate impacts of tax cap, $2.5 million from reserves to operating and $2.1 million to cover tax cert risk,” board Member Don Ashkenase said. “But as we’ve always said, when you go into reserves, this is one-time income, it doesn’t create recurring income going forward, so the more we rely on reserves, we are just rolling the gap forward. We have been extraordinarily fortunate in the school district: this is the first time we have had to deal with personnel reductions, when school districts across state, Nassau County and Suffolk already have had reductions to stay within 2% tax cap.

“You have heard me say it, that the tax cap at some point undermines quality of public education, which is a serious implication for all of us. As the cumulative effect of tax cap is seen by larger communities, we are hoping the political will exists out there to go back to legislature and executive branches of government, and say, ‘Look at cumulative damage being done to public education’.”

Great Neck Superintendent of Schools Tom Dolan reflected on the personnel cuts “as painful for the board and administration, these are people in your building. It is a mark of cohesiveness that we have been able to struggle through this, more struggle this year than in years past. We  have still maintained the quality of program, but I can’t say that we are offering absolutely everything we have offered. You can’t eliminate a single person and not do that. We know that this is about lives, it’s about lives of people, and lives of children.

And think about the teachers – people who have spent a sizeable amount of money on their education and credentials, and probably had other career choices available to them.

“This is the first time that probationary positions have been eliminated [in order to meet the tax cap],” Great Neck North High principal Bernard Kaplan said. “That value of people coming to Great Neck for their professional life, and as long as they were outstanding teachers, knew they would have a job in Great Neck, that Rubicon has been crossed this year, and that Rubicon changes the relationships that make the district so special. And that’s a terrible Rubicon, everyone agrees had to be crossed. We are not cutting a little fat here and there as we have done for 4-5 years for [the weak] economy; now we’re cutting blood and bone for the first time ever. 

“We are maintaining our programs, but no one should believe this is a maintenance budget as in past years, this is a cutting budget. People need to respond to that, have to understand that but we can’t keep doing it and have the kind of schools we have had…. We are changing the nature of our schools,” Kaplan said.

Some Long Island districts are actually facing bankruptcy, and the state Legislature’s solution is to offer them the equivalent of the balloon mortgage scam that collapsed the nation’s economy in 2008. Under this scheme, school districts could opt to defer the full amount of their TRS obligations for a few years in the future when they will have to fork up that much and more. How would they do that and still be within the cap, and have any money at all to actually teach?

What does that say about the true interest among Legislators – including our state Sen. Jack Martins – to preserve public education?

And how short-sighted would this be, if school districts are paying less than they need to into TRS, that means that the fund has less money to invest in order to get the return needed to pay the retirement obligations in the future?

“If 20 percent of districts across New York State pay less, that means TRS has less money to invest – in fact, 80 percent of money that grows from TRS comes from investments as opposed to contributions, so if they have less money to invest, they will have less benefit from the money,” Dolan explained.

“How might that impact districts that don’t opt in [at the lower rate]? If the fund earns less money, will the obligation fall on us to make up shortfall?”

This isn’t the only absurdity of the property tax cap. The formula for calculating the tax cap also incentivizes school districts to bond, rather than pay out of an operating budget, and is a disincentive to pay off debt altogether. So, in 2018-19, when Great Neck school district has an opportunity to retire its bonds, we would be penalized by having an even smaller tax cap.

Dolan gave the example of a school district that retired its bonds, and as a result, had  its property tax cap threshold set at only 1.2 percent, rather than 2 percent.

How sensible is that? Bonding might be a sensible alternative when interest rates are as low as they are, but that won’t be the case for much longer, and bonding should never be used to cover operating expenses.

This is the short-sighted thinking that is so destructive.

The state’s property tax cap isn’t the only Sword of Damocles hanging over Nassau County’s public schools. There is also Nassau County’s absurd move (so far ruled illegal) to hold school districts liable for the tax refunds on the assessments that the County makes – this year, the school district set aside money from its reserves to cover it, but if an appeals court sides with the County, $2 million (out of the $6 million increase allowed) will have to be set aside each year just to pay tax refunds, so that your neighbor can get a reduction and you have to pay that much more. (Ultimately, we all pay for the tax refund. How’s that for irony?)

So far, our district has managed to preserve the essential ingredient to our success: small class sizes which enable our highly qualified teachers to differentiate teaching for children’s different learning styles. We have been able to retain the “non-core” courses and activities that probably do more to enhance learning, cognitive and emotional development than the core curriculum – things like music, art, theater, robotics, science research, Model UN and Model Congress, mock trial, even sports teams and scores of other programs that other school districts have had to cut. 

There might be some who say that staging a full-length opera in its original language (South High is the only high school in the country to do so), or sending our students to Model UN, or having a robotics club are luxuries. I think they are more beneficial to learning than having to sit through the state 8th grade ELA exam, reading “Story of My Life” by Helen Keller, and writing the answer to the question, “How do these two sentences reflect the author’s changing relationship with language? Use two details form the passage to support your answer.”

We have been able to preserve the best of our public schools. But for how much longer? 

“Blood, sweat and tears are in this budget,” said board President Barbara Berkowitz. “Other districts hurt…. We will protect our children because of the professionalism of our staff. Everyone here is making do with less. Everyone here will do their best to make sure that the last vestige on the totem pole are the kids, and they will be protected. So far we can protect class size, and hope that is something we will never have to give up. But some extras – they weren’t even extras, but part of what made this district special – will be phased out. I think this is a good budget still for 2013-14. On balance, it protects so much of what we value, and we’ll just keep fighting, that’s what we do, whether with Jack Martins, Cuomo, with our legislators, whatever what we have to do, to protect children, that’s our pledge, our oath.”

The property tax cap should be repealed and local control restored.

“We’ve lobbied legislators as hard as we can to eliminate, not modify, the property tax cap,” Dolan said. “It may sound melodramatic, but we worry that it’s the death knell of public education. No, it doesn’t account for students with special needs [who can cost a district twice as much per pupil as so called “general” students], districts that take good care of special needs. Nor does it take into account enrollment.” And Great Neck’s enrollment is growing. 

A better solution would be to fund public education with a combination of property tax and income tax (something that is actually done now, through state aid); to create senior housing in empowerment zones within the community, where the seniors pay only a minimal amount of school tax. If the tax cap is not repealed altogether, the formula should be modified to include enrollment and population of special needs students.

At the start of the Saturday budget workshop, Berkowitz pointed to “a lot of numbers, but as we’re going through these numbers, we’ve never lost sight of fact that everything on the page has impact on lives – our children, our staff, our taxpayers in this community. This has been an extremely difficult budget to prepare, difficult to live with the consequences to some items in the budget. But these are tough times. We had this cap and knew it would get harder each year, and we want to stay within the tax cap.”

You know what? There are always tough times. I can’t remember a year when people didn’t complain about the economy, about how tough it is to pay taxes. If anything, this year has seen gigantic improvement in the economic vitality of our community – certainly Wall Street and those hedge fund managers have hit new records. Where do you see anyone saying, okay now we can focus again on quality education? And even if the community wanted to, because of the tax cap, they couldn’t.

On Tuesday, in addition to voting to support public education, we also will be voting to elect board member Monique Bloom to her first full term (she was appointed to the vacancy left by Fran Langsner who moved out of the district). Our board members have an extraordinarily difficult task and they work on behalf of all of us, and deserve our appreciation, respect and support. The decisions they make impact all of our children and by extension, help shape the world they will inherit.

We also vote on the library budget which is unremarkable and maintains our services and programs.

Vote to support the school and library budgets on Tuesday, May 21, 7 am to 10 p.m., at EM Baker Elementary School (for those living in the north) and at South High School (for those living in the south).

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