March 30, 2012

STATE BUDGET: Union activism makes a difference

Author: Betsy Sandberg
Source: NYSUT Communications

State lawmakers are in the process of approving a $132.5 billion state budget, with final enactment expected today.

NYSUT leaders noted that $805 million in school aid was restored from last year's historic $1.3 billion in cuts to K-12 schools and that lawmakers took important steps to turn around deep cuts to higher education, thanks to non-stop activism on the part of NYSUT's grass-roots lobbyists and legislative staff for K-12 and higher education.

Nonetheless, this spending plan does not go far enough to put New York back on track to restore the quality programs that students have lost in recent years. "In fact, because of the property tax cap passed last year, districts across the state are cutting programs and laying off even more educators," said NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi.

He praised the thousands of NYSUT members who fought hard to reverse the budget cuts of recent years. NYSUT's online campaign - nearly 50,000 petition signatures and 86,000 faxes and web letters - called for the restoration of $200 million in operating aid that had been earmarked for competitive grants. Lawmakers did just that for the 2012-13 school year.

"The state budget took some positive steps, restoring some of the devastating cuts of the past three years," added NYSUT Executive Vice President Andy Pallotta. "However, it also missed some opportunities. Closing corporate loopholes and holding Wall Street accountable would have provided essential new revenue - revenue that's needed to avoid another year of teacher layoffs, program cuts and school closings."

Pallotta noted the scheduling of the union's annual lobbying day was timed perfectly as hundreds of educators from pre-K through post grad, made their points to lawmakers one week before the budget ending up being approved. Higher education and SUNY hospital funds were restored above what the governor proposed and high-needs K-12 districts will be prioritized as part of the aid restorations.

The total $20.4 billion in school aid for the 2012-13 school year is a year-to-year increase of $805 million, or 4 percent. However, districts will not necessarily see a 4 percent increase in their school aid. Aid formulas affect the amounts that go to individual districts, and other factors - such as a $50 million in competitive grants and $10.22 million for teacher centers - all come out of the overall increase. Also, $7 million for non-public schools was added. The bottom line is that actual operating aid increase is now $510 million.

As for BOCES, even though they do see some increased state aid for their vocation and special education programs, it is not enough to offset lost enrollment that results when home districts are unable to afford to send their students to alternative and specialized programs. This urgent concern remains high priority.

School aid increases will be tied to APPR approval by Jan. 17, 2013, so districts that do not submit approved teacher and principal evaluation plans risk mid-year budget cuts.

The new budget does not include Gov. Cuomo's proposals to require all future arbitration costs to be split evenly between the school district and the local union. Instead, the budget allows the State Education Department to set limits on the costs of teacher disciplinary hearings, disqualify hearing officers who fail to comply with statutory deadlines and allows the state to use new technology to help reduce the cost of the hearing.

Also, efforts to shift onto school districts the cost of growth in preschool special education were excluded from the final budget.

This budget sets up a new aid category to allow for grants to school districts where the district does not get approval by the SED commissioner of its APPR plan and the commissioner determines additional costs are necessary to meet the requirements of the new law.

Also, the Legislature added $3,195,000 for aid to public libraries, a welcome development as libraries deal with increased demand and increased pressure to cut costs.