April 2012
March 19, 2012

Tax cap forces tough choices

Author: Betsy Sandberg
Source: NYSUT United
Caption: Members of the Thousand Islands EA hand-deliver 200 letters from teachers, students, parents and members of the Jefferson County community to a staffer from the governor's office. Photo by Betsy Sandberg.

Schools from Niagara Falls to Long Island are buckling under a one-two punch. First districts were led to believe they would get a 4 percent increase in state aid. Gov. Cuomo's proposed state budget delivered a cruel jab when it restored only a portion of last year's $1.3 billion cut in formula aid to schools; $200 million is set aside for competitive grants, a move only budget negotiations can nullify.

Then came a crippling right cross — the tax cap.

To understand how damaging the tax cap is, study the Comsewogue schools on Long Island.

To keep all programs intact in the Suffolk County district would require an 8.7 percent increase, adding $565 to the average tax bill. Because that budget would exceed the state's supposed 2 percent tax levy cap, 60 percent of voters would have to vote yes to get the spending plan approved.

While that might be what Superintendent Joseph Rella wants to do, he can't risk it, he said, because if the budget is defeated by just 40 percent of voters, the school board has only one more chance at getting the budget passed. And if it didn't pass the second time, a zero percent increase and $4 million in cuts would be imposed under the tax cap. Gone would be the entire kindergarten program, one of the four elementary schools, all athletics and 57 employees.

The threat of a zero percent cap is the real sucker punch that has educational programs on the ropes.

With the support of the Port Jefferson Station Teachers Association, Rella convinced the school board to pierce the tax cap and submit to voters a budget with a 4.5 percent tax levy increase.

"It's with a heavy heart, because our students and schools will still suffer the impact of $2.1 million in cuts," said Beth Dimino, who leads the PJSTA. Class sizes in the elementary, middle and high schools might go up to as many as 30 students and some athletics and extra curricular programs will not be offered. Almost 23 dedicated educators and colleagues will be laid off.

Confronting this kind of a huge challenge is exactly why Dimino and her union committed to NYSUT's Local Action Project (LAP) three years ago. The program helps unions increase member participation and build community support. "The Comsewogue community sees us as one of them in the battle against Albany to secure funding for our students," Dimino said. The local union helped the district establish the Comsewogue for Students Foundation, and the PJSTA annually runs fundraisers for the foundation.

"Perhaps the most important things we've done are help pass the school budget every year and elect members of the Comsewogue school board who are pro-public education," she said. Both measures were instrumental in convincing the district to go above the 2 percent tax cap. The current budget had a 7.33 percent increase and passed with a 70 percent approval rate.

That will be tested on May 15 when districts across the state put their budgets to a vote.

Local unions and NYSUT will work through the coming weeks to inform members and the community — through meetings, direct mailings and radio and television ad campaigns — how important it is to vote.

The Port Jefferson Station TA, like many others, is making sure voters understand that state aid is still far below the 2009-10 levels.

"This is true across the state. Districts have gotten hit year after year," NYSUT Executive Vice President Andy Pallotta said, noting most communities have picked up these body blows by taking on a heavier tax burden. "We were concerned there are communities that cannot ask more of their taxpayers, but now it is a crisis."

It's all because the state is reneging on its commitment to public education, Pallotta said. State aid provided 46.8 percent of the cost to educate students in the 2008-09 year. Now, the state share has dropped to 39.3 percent.

Small cities are hurting. In Niagara Falls, the superintendent and nine-member school board have not raised local property taxes in 18 years. To keep taxes flat means a budget gap of nearly $6.8 million for the 2012-13 school year. The district does have reserve funds, which could bring the figure down to $4.2 million. In mid-March the district was still "in the midst of developing scenarios for the budget so we don't have enough concrete details," said local President Ed Ceccato. "One thing we do know is that if NYSUT is successful in getting the $200 million in competitive grants back into regular state aid, that means $1.2 million for our schools, so that's one concrete thing we are working with western New York lawmakers on now."

As NYSUT United went to press, budget negotiations were still underway. Lawmakers have until April 1 to reach agreement on the budget.

While locals and members lobby through the union's Member Action Center, NYSUT is supporting their efforts at rallies and contacting lawmakers to press for more aid. That online petition urges lawmakers to put funds earmarked for competitive grants back into overall state aid. UPDATE 3/31: More than 45,000 signatures made the difference: lawmakers restored $200 million to overall state aid in the enacted budget. But your activism at the local level is still essential.

The move would also help rural communities, said Robert Riddoch, a member of the Thousand Islands Education Association. "The competitive grants are so unfair because they punish districts that don't meet their strict criteria, or worse yet, can't afford a grant writer."

The TIEA supported a letter-writing campaign and budget forums, two union-management projects that are now bearing fruit. The seeds started through their participation with NYSUT's LAP program several years ago, said Laura Lamon, TIEA president.

"LAP emphasizes building coalitions and developing allies," she said. "Nothing is easy in these tough financial times. But having already built relationships, it has been easier to stand together to protect programming and opportunities for our students."