The many flaws to New York state's property tax cap law add up to one huge problem for students: It compromises their right to a sound, basic education.
"This law puts an unfair cap on what schools can provide for students," said Beth Dimino, president of the Port Jefferson Station Teachers Association. "This cap is so harmful because it does not allow for local needs or changes in enrollments or other factors — like the weather — that we have no control over."
The cap also devastates schools because it is not a 2 percent cap. The actual percent is based on a multitude of factors, which can actually mean a negative tax levy increase and, if a budget fails to pass, establishes an automatic zero cap. Add that to the ever-increasing costs school districts face because of the state's over-reliance on standardized state tests and it's no wonder districts are facing severe budget crises.
Worst of all is the 60 percent supermajority required to exceed the 2 percent levy increase.
"Because just over 40 percent of the people said no to the school budget, we had to cut $2.9 million," Dimino said, noting class sizes at the Comsewogue, Long Island district increased, librarian positions were cut, and offerings at the high school were scaled back.
Since lawmakers created the problem, they have to correct it, said NYSUT Executive Vice President Andy Pallotta. NYSUT's top legislative priority this year, he said, will be to persuade lawmakers to provide the funds schools need to provide the sound, basic education called for in the state constitution.
"Comsewogue schools are just one example of how the state's budget cuts and the property tax cap law have hurt educational opportunities," Pallotta said. "Every district has more examples."
In fact, high-need schools across the state — surveyed by the non-profit group Campaign for Educational Equity (CEE), an arm of Columbia University's Teachers College — reported that they are unable to provide educational basics.
The survey found:
• None of the 33 schools surveyed provides the required academic support services for students who fail to meet the state's grade-level standards;
• 13 did not meet the minimum requirements for science;
• 14 provide only minimal course offerings in art; and
• 11 are not able to provide students with college readiness counseling and support.
NYSUT members will push for increases to state aid for education from pre-K through college, amendments to the tax cap and other priorities in several ways. (See box for activities to be held in Albany.) Activists can help out from home by using the NYSUT Member Action Center (MAC) at mac.nysut.org.
They can visit lawmakers' home offices Feb. 7-8 and April 18-19 to press their case for funding and other priorities. They can also participate in a June 6-7 effort that will focus on the union's priorities at the end of the state legislative session.
Among NYSUT's priorities:
Keep SUNY Downstate Medical Center and Hospital open so thousands of Brooklyn residents will have access to necessary quality health care, both inpatient and outpatient, regardless of their ability to pay for treatment.
• Hold off attempts to dismantle the protections of the Triborough Law and due process rights, and fight attacks on collective bargaining.
• Pass a pension smoothing bill to ease the financial impact for school districts.
• Increase funding for the state's 128 teacher centers, which provide professional learning, workshops on new practices and standards, and other resources for classroom instructors.
• Seek safe patient handling techniques in an effort to dramatically reduce and eliminate work-related injuries and reduce workplace costs.
• Expand tuition assistance awards and other financial aid programs and scholarships to undocumented immigrant students through the New York Dream Act.
• Increase the state's minimum wage. NYSUT notes that annual income for New York state full-time minimum wage workers has not exceeded the federal poverty threshold since 1979.