While it's good news that voters supported public education across the state by adopting 96 percent of budgets last month, the reality is 543 of those budgets were well below their tax cap.
The bottom line? For the second year in a row most of the state's school budgets made deep cuts to programming and staffing that are a result of the state's property tax cap and years of decreased school funding from the state.
NYSUT and its local unions in most cases worked with districts to educate voters about why local school budgets needed their support, even when those budgets increased class sizes, cut programs or closed schools.
"Nearly every school board feared alienating voters by going above the arbitrary tax cap, even when they knew that ensuing budget cuts would hurt students in their communities," said NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi.
Incomplete results show that 644 budgets passed and 32 failed. A close look at just one district shows how the good news of an approved budget also includes the pain of cuts.
Voters in South Colonie schools, which straddles Albany and Schenectady counties, overwhelmingly supported a budget above the tax cap, but it cuts more than 90 positions and eliminates foreign languages in fifth and sixth grades. Members of the South Colonie TA sacrificed a day's salary to save the universal prekindergarten program.
Budgets in districts that stayed within their tax cap received high voter approval rates. Voters in seven districts agreed to override the cap with a 60 percent supermajority, while 14 of the 21 budgets that "failed" received a majority of yes votes, but not the 60 percent needed under the state's tax cap law.
NYSUT filed a lawsuit in February saying the tax cap unconstitutionally limits local school districts' control over the programs they can offer and undermines basic democracy. The Legislature or the courts must address the injustice in those school districts where the required supermajority wreaked havoc, Iannuzzi said.
Not passing a budget means a zero percent increase in budget spending, regardless of circumstances. In the districts that did not pass budgets, voters have one more chance June 18.
Districts and NYSUT worked continually to educate the public that state aid to schools next year is still millions of dollars less than what was provided for the 2008-09 and 2009-10 years. For example, Sachem, the largest school district on Long Island, is getting $12 million less in aid next year than it received in 2009. Last year, the local renegotiated a contract to put $4 million back into the budget to make up for state aid reductions.
Sachem took the gamble and proposed piercing the cap to avoid increasing elementary and secondary class sizes; eliminating its gifted and talented and science research programs, extracurricular clubs, cheerleading, marching band and all non-varsity level sports; cutting all non-mandated music programs and elementary library programs by 50 percent; and reducing kindergarten to half-day. About 150 jobs would have been cut.
The Sachem school board decided to try to repeat history, as voters agreed to override the cap last year. The board still made numerous cuts to offer a plan that increased spending by only .58 percent, but exceeded its 2 percent tax levy limit. A 60 percent "yes" vote was needed for the budget to pass.
The Sachem Central Teachers Association worked for weeks on a campaign to turn out voters who would support the override. "We sent 7,000 letters, 7,000 postcards, posted 600 signs, distributed 6,000 or so fliers, contacted youth groups, the PTA, parents of athletes and other locals for help. Also, our retirees helped greatly by making hundreds and hundreds of phone calls," said John Troise, SCTA president.
Despite a 54 percent yes vote, the budget failed. "Something is not right when your budget fails even though you get 1,000 more yes votes than no," Troise said.
Troise has a historical perspective on school funding. In 1991, he was a Sachem junior high school student lobbying Albany when then Gov. Mario Cuomo enacted mid-year cuts that deeply hurt programs. "Most of the course offerings never came back, and neither did many of the people."
Now Troise is seeing program offerings scaled back even more or eliminated altogether because schools are starving for funds, thanks to budget cuts advocated by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Troise says the touted budget increase for this year didn't help Sachem. "When you are starving, a half a loaf of bread looks better than none. With so few opportunities outside the classroom being offered now the bottom line for our students is they are left with crumbs," he said.
In the coming weeks, NYSUT will monitor districts that submit budgets for revotes and will work with locals to get budgets passed.
NYSUT has partnered with other unions and more than a dozen community groups for its June 8 rally in Albany to increase awareness about inadequate state funding. Thousands of parents, administrators, school board members and civil rights and education advocates are expected to demand that state government fulfill New York's constitutional obligation to provide a quality, public education to all children.
"A quality education is truly at risk in our community," said Kevin Rustowicz, president of the Niagara-Wheatfield TA. The local was deeply disappointed when the budget failed in the western New York district by just four votes.
Rustowicz noted school board members did not follow through on their threat to eliminate kindergarten and reduce sports and music programs if the budget didn't pass. Instead, the proposal for the June 18 re-vote would zero out a team of teachers from the middle school to save $300,000 and reduce support staff across the district by another $130,000. The tax levy would increase 4.5 percent rather than the 5.9 percent increase they originally sought. "Kids are losing out and that's a low-down, dirty rotten shame," Rustowicz said.