February 20, 2013

Voices behind the lawsuit: Taking a stand for fair funding

Author: Betsy Sandberg
Source: NYSUT Communications

Five of the plaintiffs in NYSUT's lawsuit against the state's property tax cap talk about why they believe the law needs to be overturned.

Seth Cohen

Troy Teachers Association

seth cohen"I voted yes on the Stillwater school budget because it was a fair budget that allowed our district to offer the programs needed for our students, and it was also fair to the taxpayers."

The Stillwater schools first asked voters to approve a $21.2 million budget for the 2012-13 school year. The district cut a full-time middle school teacher, one full-time special education teacher, a guidance counselor and an AV coordinator. It also did away with elementary-level summer school, as well as tuition payments for high school students to take college-level classes. The school board did, however, propose to fund two new positions: a literacy specialist and a behavioral specialist.

The majority of Stillwater voters agreed with Cohen, voting "yes" on the budget, which was $66,000 less than the previous year. But because the plan increased the local tax levy by more than 2 percent, the plan fell 27 votes short of the 60 percent the district needed.

"After the budget defeat, the district was able to get a lower tax levy increase by re-financing the district's debt at a lower rate, which brought in about $123,000 which along with a reduction in field trip expenses," Cohen said. "The district put out essentially the same budget (no more changes in program) and this budget passed" by a vote of 625 to 390.

"My main concern is the unfairness of a 60 percent super-majority or, in other words, 40 percent minority that controls the spending," Cohen said.

Timothy Ehlers

Three Village Teachers Association

"I teach and live in the Three Village school district on Long Island. We have one child in kindergarten and another is 2 1/2 years old. We live in an affluent area and we pay high taxes, up to $18,000 a year, but that is our choice."

It's no consolation to Ehlers that more than 56 percent of voters also voted "yes" on the first budget the district submitted last May. The second budget the district submitted to voters stayed within the property tax cap by cutting 109 full-time equivalent positions, including two elementary assistant principal positions. That budget passed with nearly 69 percent of the vote.

"My son is in a larger class size than he would have had, but at least we still have full-day kindergarten. As a teacher, my classes now average 26 to 27 students; last year, it was 22," Ehlers said. "That means limited opportunities for one-on-one work and effective lessons lose success with higher class sizes."

For Ehlers, fairness is the main reason he is part of the lawsuit: "Is it gerrymandering that a local government no longer gets to act autonomously to decide how to spend money and that a budget fails with 57 percent saying 'yes,' they want to spend that money," he said.

Mike Lillis

Lakeland Federation of Teachers

mike lillis"I was one of 1,726 people who voted yes on the first New Paltz school budget for the 2012-13 school year." But when 1,180 voters voted "no" on the $50.31 million budget, it went down because of the supermajority requirement of the new property tax cap.

In June, the district submitted a $50 million budget that required only a simple majority: 2,309 voters said "yes" and 846 said "no." For his children, that means larger class sizes and a language program was eliminated.

But, as an elected president of the Lakeland Federation of Teachers, Lillis said: "I find it offensive that this, the most democratic tax that is levied - and, in fact, the only tax that voters actually get to have a direct say on - is skewed so that those who vote 'no' count 50 percent more than those who vote 'yes.'"

Rob Pearl

Port Jefferson Station Teachers Association

rob pearlHe voted 'yes' on the Comsewogue, Long Island school budget "because I wanted to keep my son in his home elementary school, next door to my house, for his entire K-5 elementary experience. Now, my son will have to be bussed across town for grades 3-5. I voted 'yes' because my older daughters are in the middle and high school and have lost numerous extra-curricular opportunities such as newspaper, Yorkers (the study of New York), language clubs and more."

When that budget failed with a 59 percent "yes" vote, the Comsewogue schools slashed $2.9 million to get to a budget that stays within the state property tax cap. That budget passed easily.

"Elementary schools now have 'bare bones' extra-curricular activities," said Pearl, who has four children attending the public schools. "Those elementary clubs that remain have upwards of 100 students clamoring to participate, which makes it almost unachievable task by a 'lone' teacher. This has severely hindered the students' ability to become as well rounded as they could possibly be. Even with the school reconfiguration, the elementary class sizes are pushing 30 (even in kindergarten). I teach special education on the secondary level. I have seen budgets slashed for classroom supplies, textbooks and technology. The number of professional development opportunities to expand out pedagogy has all but been gutted. Monies are being spent to develop state mandated APPRS, SLOs and state exams, but they are not being spent on the students!"

Hilary Strong

Spencer-Van Etten Teachers Assocation

hilary strong"I voted 'yes' on Elmira's school budget last year in hopes of preserving as many programs and positions in the Elmira city school district as possible. I want the children of Elmira to have the same academic and extra curricular opportunities that students have had in the past, and that many wealthier districts can still afford to offer. I want my children to be competitive when applying to colleges. Colleges look to see the rigor of a student's transcript. If Elmira can't offer Advanced Placement classes, then how will my children have a chance at being accepted into a competitive university?"

The first Elmira budget put to voters received 55 percent support, but not enough because the budget was above the tax cap. The second budget eliminated 126.5 positions and reduced athletics and non-mandated programs.

"This has been devastating," Strong said. "We have larger class sizes and fewer academic opportunities. There are fewer clubs, marching band, plays for our kids. What does a senior list as extra curricular activities when there are none to join? Elementary students get one gym and music class per week. Library and computer lab staffing has been cut.

"School districts cannot survive under the tax cap. There is no where to turn to make up the difference between what a school district needs to provide a quality education for our kids and the insufficient amount of state aid provided. The tax cap was devastating to Elmira in its first year. I can't even imagine what it will do to us again this year."