May 2012 Issue
April 16, 2012

Vote May 15 - Students counting on you

Author: Betsy Sandberg
Source: NYSUT United

Miller Photography

When voters go to the polls May 15, most of them will vote on school budgets that stay within the state-imposed tax cap and barely maintain quality programs for students.

NYSUT urges members to vote on their school budgets, whether or not a district is staying within the cap. The union pressed that point when it helped locals get budget vote messages out earlier than ever and launched a statewide multi-media campaign to encourage a strong voter turnout.

"It is vital that locals muster voters to turn out, NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi said. "The risk of having to go back to the voters a second time is far too dangerous.

Just more than 20 districts out of 734 across the state are trying to override the cap on spending to preserve school programs.

In Niagara-Wheatfield, "the kind of education our students would get would be worlds apart if we didn't try to override the cap, said teachers association president Kevin Rustowicz.

To save jobs and programs, the membership agreed to health insurance savings and to eliminate a tuition reimbursement benefit that will save $1.2 million. Even with those sacrifices, the district hopes voters will agree to an override.

"Our choice to stay within the tax cap would have meant 59 additional cuts, on top of the almost 20 cuts from last year, he said.

"We're still losing highly skilled and professional teachers and counselors, 37 in all, but this is a budget that still provides quality programming and allows students opportunities, Rustowicz said, noting that an email campaign set up by NWTA succeeded in getting an additional $500,000 in aid through a state budget line item.

Long Island has the greatest number of districts — at least 12 — seeking a super majority of voters to approve budgets that exceed their cap.

"The bottom line is we find that this cap truly dismantles public education and opportunities for students, said Nadia Resnikoff, president of the Middle Country TA and a member of NYSUT's Board of Directors.

Like Niagara-Wheatfield, the Suffolk County district will still lay off educators (about 20 positions) and cut programs, even though the local union agreed to wage sacrifices for this, and the coming, school years to help the district overcome recessionary pressures. Resnikoff predicts the tax rate will increase between 4 and 5 percent.

"Even with these cuts, we will support the budget. If the voters don't approve it, we will see cuts starting from prekindergarten and all the way up to high school electives and athletics, and about 100 positions cut, she said. "It's hard to imagine, as we work to implement the common core standards that begin in pre-K and continue into kindergarten, that our students would not have pre-K or full-day K. They would end up one to two years behind before they even start school.

The Three Village TA is facing similar circumstances, said local president Claudia Reinhart. Layoff notices went to 88 teachers and four teaching assistants even though members have sacrificed raises for two years. If voters agree to pierce a cap, programs from full-day kindergarten to junior high school athletics and all that nine periods offer high school students will be saved. If voters say no?

"Then you will not recognize the Three Village school district, Reinhart said. "We will revert to the three Rs, and add a T for testing. Schools will soon change to warehouses, with no choice for students to grow or prepare for their futures.

The East Aurora teachers union is one local "thoroughly disappointed its school board decided to stay within the cap.

"Despite overwhelming public sentiment to keep programs for kids this year, and the history of passing budgets for years with 69 to 71 percent approvals, the board will not even try, said Todd Hathaway, president of the East Aurora Faculty Association, which placed "Don't Erase Our Progress ads in the weekly newspaper.
Now, it's doubtful a number of students on track to receive Regents Diplomas with Advanced Designation will be able to meet those requirements, Hathaway said.

"Cutting one period from the high school every day may sound simple, but right now we're scrambling trying to find a way for students to make that up, Hathaway said. "We might not be able to.

Districts that can override the tax cap should be better positioned to put forward budgets that would maintain current programs and services, and would fund extra-curricular programs, sports, electives, Advanced Placement courses, tutoring and after-school programs.

However, a budget that is voted down — districts do have two chances — means a zero percent increase in the budget. Under the new law, a school district cannot increase its tax levy without voter approval.

Iannuzzi urged NYSUT members to consider the impact of a zero percent budget when they cast their votes. "We know the choices this year are very difficult. Too many school budgets are cutting valuable programs our students need. But a zero percent budget does even more damage.

In the north country, the Plattsburgh City School District crafted a budget that carries a 5.82 percent tax increase, above its 3.01 percent cap. Even so, the budget cuts 15 jobs and at least trims, if not eliminates, a wide number of sports.

"This budget is not something we would normally endorse, but it's too devastating to cut further and too devastating to our community to put forth a huge tax rate, said Rod Sherman, president of the Plattsburgh TA and a member of the NYSUT Board of Directors.

Sherman noted the Plattsburgh community is still struggling to recover from a number of hits, going back as far as the closing of the air force base in 1995 and, like in much of the state, declining property values.
While this budget cuts secondary English, math and social studies, and will result in up to 30 students in classes, it is one the union will work hard to get passed because it keeps pre-K and full-day kindergarten, pre-engineering, music and foreign language programs.

"We will have fewer teaching assistants, custodians, clericals and monitors, but this is what we're left with because the state is not picking up its share, Sherman said.

In just the four years since the 2008-09 fiscal year, aid to schools statewide has dropped from 46.8 percent of costs to 39.3 percent now.