October 20, 2015

Tax cap, less state aid hit small, rural districts especially hard

Author: Ned Hoskin
Source: NYSUT Communications

Smaller school districts often rely on outside placements to find the most appropriate and productive educational settings for students with special needs. But more and more, districts are being forced to abandon their ability to provide what kids need. They simply can't afford it.

Students who were placed in intensive special programs, at district expense, are being brought back to the district to save money and stay under the tax cap, members of NYSUT's Small and Rural Locals Advisory Council said.

"It's hurting the kids who are doing well in the appropriate placements," said Matthew Fuller of the Taconic Hills Faculty Association.

Some districts send students, whose needs cannot be met in the general education program, to GED programs rather than to an appropriate special program, "just to save $5,000," said Mark Warren of the Batavia Teachers Association.

"Isn't the first thing that should be considered be the best interest of the child?" said Duane Willsey of the Madison Central School TA. "The best interest of the child is not the first priority, because the district just can't afford to send another kid to a program."

NYSUT Board member Jeannette Stapley, a Schroon Lake TA member, said the problem exists throughout the state whenever a committee on special education identifies a student's needs and prescribes a program outside the community, whether it be a Special Act School, a 4201 or 853 program.

"Is that what that child needs? You can bet on it," she said. "But it's a huge expense in the budget. We need a funding stream for this."

This is only one of the frustrating symptoms of the state's tax cap and reduced state aid that hurt small and rural local school districts particularly. The advisory council discussed the issues at length with Ron Deutsch, executive director of the Fiscal Policy Institute. Deutsch is working with Cornell University to develop a meaningful survey of districts, educators and parents that will expose the real impact the ill-conceived and undemocratic tax cap is having on public education across the state. Layoffs, program cuts, lost curriculum and other effects on cash-starved public schools will all be studied.

"We really haven't quantified the impact statewide and that's something we think the survey will be able to do," Deutsch said.

Deutsch said the tax cap, which is tied to the rate of inflation, will be less that 1 percent next year, and many individual districts will be looking at caps of 0 percent or less.

New York's tax cap law was supposedly modeled on a more successful law in Massachusetts, but with two major differences, Deutsch said. New York requires a 60 percent supermajority of local voters to override a local tax cap, while Massachusetts requires only a simple majority. And, while the Bay State infused more state aid into education to offset the loss of local revenue, New York slashed state aid to education while simultaneously poisoning the well of local property tax revenue.

Poorer districts are desperately afraid of asking voters to approve a tax levy that exceeds the tax cap. They don't even try.

"In our district, they find out what the cap is and stay with the lowest possible number," said Benjamin Alexander, a Jordan Elbridge TA member.

Many small and rural districts are located in municipalities that are rich in property, but poor in population. And, communities with luxurious vacation homes and weekend estates often have school populations that suffer extreme poverty. Wealthy landowners can qualify for tax exemptions, such as an agricultural exemption if they have a small orchard or a few cows. Legitimate farmers rely on these exemptions to survive, but the breaks also provide a tax dodge to out-of-town landowners.

"People don't go into the [public education] profession to make money," Deutsch said, "but we're making it about money."

Since the economic crash in 2008, districts have responded in different ways each year.
Initially, smaller districts were spared massive layoffs, Willsey said. Then, as more and more educators retired, they were replaced by younger professionals making half as much, and that, in turn, helped relieve the budget pinch. Now, most of those eligible to retire have done so, and younger teachers are making their way up the pay scale.

"What about when there are no more teachers at higher salaries to leave?" Willsey said. "A lot of upstate districts are living on that difference."

Anyway you look at it — layoffs, building closures, electives slashed — the students suffer. One school offered four languages two years ago; now it offers only Spanish. Another recently had two art teachers, but now is down to .2 — one fifth of an art teacher.

"When you cut a position in a small school, very often you cut the program because you don't have anyone else to teach it," Stapley said.