May 2011
April 25, 2011

Across New York, no escape from budget pain

Author: Sylvia Saunders
Source: NYSUT United
Caption: North Rockland High School students listen to NYSUT Secretary-Treasurer Lee Cutler discuss ways students can get involved in the school budget process. Photo by Maria R. Bastone.

Don't tell Poughkeepsie educators their school district can absorb budget cuts without hurting students.

The small city school board is considering a budget plan that would eliminate 67 jobs, cut sports and shut the district's alternative program for disruptive students. Full-day kindergarten would be replaced by a half-day program.

Ditto in Rochester, where 900 jobs are on the line and on Long Island, where so many Sachem educators received pink slips, they needed seven buses for a lobby day in Albany.

Indeed, the headlines around the state show schools are preparing austere budget proposals with thousands of layoffs, significant program cuts and larger class sizes.
Many districts, like Bethlehem, Cheektowaga and Syracuse, are moving forward with heart-wrenching plans to close at least one school building.

As the magnitude of $1.2 billion in state aid budget cuts hits home, it's becoming clear that this year's school budgets cannot be balanced with administrative efficiencies and rainy day funds.

"There appears to be no way to avoid impacting classrooms significantly," said NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi. "School districts of all sizes — rural, suburban and big city — are making very difficult choices."

The true extent of layoffs and program cuts won't be known for a couple weeks, as school districts in all but the Big Five districts prepare budget plans that will go before voters on May 17.

Based on information from NYSUT regional offices and media reports, it looks like job losses statewide could push 15,000. That's on top of the cuts from last year, which resulted in about 10,000 positions being eliminated statewide.

"Many school districts are really strapped to find ways to save any more money," Iannuzzi said, as he was questioned by reporters at the capitol. "They've been doing that for the last two or three years, so in many school districts, especially low-wealth districts, these cuts are truly painful and far-reaching."

In an effort to avoid layoffs and program eliminations, many local unions are restructuring contracts in order to create cost savings.

"Unfortunately, in some districts offers to dramatically restructure contracts to provide savings for taxpayers have been rejected by wrong-headed school boards," Iannuzzi said.

The Kenmore Teachers Association, which represents nearly 800 members in western New York, agreed to health insurance contribution changes and to pay an additional $100 per year for them to receive annual professional development.

"Our union recognizes the dire state of fiscal affairs. We wanted to offer reasonable and innovative cost-saving measures in order to save the district money, and at the same time preserve positions that make up the backbone of our district: our teachers," said KTA President Donald Benker.

In some places, local unions offered to negotiate cost savings, but districts refused to guarantee the money saved would be used to restore programs or jobs.

A poll by the New York State Council of School Superintendents found 87 percent of superintendents said they would dip into district reserves. Others said they would use money left over from the Federal Education Jobs Fund, an estimated $350 million.

A number of districts such as Kingston have approved local retirement incentives in an attempt to avoid staff layoffs.

NYSUT is urging state lawmakers to approve a statewide early retirement incentive similar to last year's as soon as possible so school districts can achieve the maximum budgetary benefit and school employees have sufficient lead time to make their retirement decisions. An action letter calling for a 55/25 retirement incentive is posted at www.nysut.org.

The letter notes last year's incentive saved a large number of jobs by allowing long-time public servants at the top of the salary scale an opportunity to retire without incurring a retirement penalty.

These incentives come at very little cost to the retirement system or employers and provide school districts with a tool to reduce or avoid layoffs and keep important educational programs in place.

In addition, NYSUT is pressing for legislation that would provide school districts options to help address spiking pension costs. Allowing school districts the option to amortize or spread out pension payments could save nearly $1 billion in the next two years.

NYSUT will continue to fight for restoration of funds, if additional state revenue becomes available.

NYSUT Executive Vice President Andy Pallotta said the union's fight to convince lawmakers to continue the income tax surcharge on the wealthiest New Yorkers is not over. "The state income tax surcharge expires Dec. 31, so there's still time to do the right thing," Pallotta said.

The Assembly extended the surcharge for those earning $1 million or more annually after deductions, which would generate about $750 million in state fiscal year 2011-12, but the Senate and governor did not support the proposal.

Given the sacrifices many workers are making this year, it's hard to believe the state would allow the income tax on the wealthy to expire, said Plattsburgh TA President Rod Sherman, whose membership voted by a 5-to-1 margin to give up a raise to save their colleagues' jobs.

"If we can do 2 percent, I think millionaries can do 2 percent," Sherman told his local newspaper.

NYSUT activists will be making these points and more when they return to Albany for the legislative session's final Committee of 100 advocacy day on May 10, with a candlelight vigil the night before at the capitol.