Categorized | Page 1, Schools

Pressure’s on for School Budget

Posted on 23 February 2011

By Clare Walla

As school budget season approaches, an issue that’s come to the surface for school districts across the state of New York is Governor Andrew Cuomo’s proposed two-percent cap on property tax levies. The legislation seems to be gaining momentum in Albany, as it was recently passed by the senate. And while the cap, if passed, would not go into effect until the 2012 school year, it’s already prompted East End school districts to buckle down and prepare for the worst.

To address the issue, Southampton Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst organized a discussion on the topic last Friday, February 18, with State Assemblyman Fred Thiele, Jr. and school district officials from across the East End.

“I am convinced there is going to be a tax cap in some way or form this year,” Thiele said. In addition to the fact that the senate overwhelmingly passed the legislation 45 to 17, Thiele said the governor has made the tax cap one of his top priorities.

“My recommendation is not to stand on the sidelines and throw rocks at the cap and hope that it goes away, because it’s not going to,” Thiele added. “There’s going to be a cap.”

The governor’s plan calls for a two-percent cap on property tax levies or the cost of living, whichever is less. (However, according to the proposed legislation, the levy growth factor shall never be less than one.) Such a cap could be overridden if a supermajority of 60 percent of taxpayers in the school district vote to ignore it.

Sag Harbor School Board members Chris Tice and Ed Drohan—who were at last week’s meeting—challenged this component of the legislation.

“That’s discrimination against the people that vote,” Drohan remarked, noting that the Sag Harbor School District has historically been very divided when it comes to the budget, which only passed last year by 50.3 percent of the votes.

“It’s allowing the minority to decide,” he added. “I don’t believe in a supermajority. Period.”

Tice said she was surprised at how Thiele could support a law that would take away the public’s right to decide.

“I’ve never heard of any other public vote that requires 60 percent to pass,” she said. “This is about what citizens want to give, it’s not about taking state money.”

A two-percent tax cap would be cause for alarm for the Sag Harbor School District, which, according to District Business Manager Janet Verneuille, is set to see its fixed costs go up by about five or six percent as it is. In other words, even if the school district keeps expenditures exactly where they are now, costs will rise due to employee pensions, health insurance costs and step salary increases.

“The district’s greatest cost is labor,” Verneuille explained. “You’re probably looking at staffing cuts.”

She continued, “When your labor costs are contractually going up by six percent and health benefits are going up by double digits, it doesn’t add up. Everything’s going to be on the table.”

Thiele mentioned the governor has already offered a few plans to help districts financially over time, one of which allows districts to tap into their reserve funds—something they are currently barred from doing by law. However, as Verneuille put it, “that’s just going to kick the can down the road.” Should Sag Harbor dip into its reserves now—which are already only half of what the state requires—Verneuille said it would only create problems in the future.

According to Thiele, Governor Cuomo would ultimately like to open up discussions regarding mandate relief. One hot topic of debate among school districts has been the Triborough Amendment to the Taylor Law, which mandates schools to pay step increases for teachers in periods when contracts are still under negotiation.

“The governor wants to bring all of the unions back to the table for concessions,” Thiele added.

In this sense, Thiele said this legislation could prove to be a good thing.
“This is a climate in which there’s going to be structural change in the way things are done. Nobody in Albany thinks that we can cut your state aid, cap property taxes and continue business as usual.”

As for Thiele’s presentation, Verneuille said “I do agree on one thing: the environment’s right for change.”

And while mandate relief is necessary, should the tax cap go into effect, Verneuille added that this would only be long-term solutions for a plan that, come 2012, would have immediate effects.

At this point, Verveuille emphasized the need for more open discussions within the community.

Tice agreed.

“There has not been an open and fair discussion on this,” she said. Tice explained she does not feel the average citizen knows enough about the possible consequences of a two-percent cap. Thiele said polls show the public supports the cap. However, Tice believes the issue hasn’t been adequately presented to the public. If people knew how a two-percent tax cap would affect local school districts, she added, “I do think most citizens would be against the law.”

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9 Responses to “Pressure’s on for School Budget”

  1. TAXPAYER says:

    Maybe we can start with our own tax cap and have the big raises already given out (behind closed doors) capped at 2% and we could be ok for a while, starting right at the top!

  2. Taxpayer2 says:

    It is unrealistic to continually increase taxes when the NY tax burden is already among the highest and incomes are stagnant (at best) or decreasing. Things to consider:

    1) if taxes must increase, share burden more evenly across income levels – taxes (as % income) are generally less for higher than for lower income households;
    2) think more creatively about allocating resources (ie combine forces with other districts, rethink “extra” compensation for club / sports supervision, etc. etc.);
    3) look at salaries & pensions for current (not just future) employees.

    EXAMPLES FOR #3: (source: http://www.seethroughny.net)

    Suffolk County Executive Salary 2010: $174,379
    NY State Governor Salary Rate: $179,000 (less 5% Cuomo voluntary giveback)

    Top 2 salaries in district for 2010: $214,038 (more than gov and county exec)
    $175,584 (more than county exec & gov after giveback )

    Top 2 pensions in pay status for district for 2009: $138K and $81K (not including
    social security)

  3. NELLIE says:

    Thank you Taxpayer 2. You said it all.

  4. saggish says:

    Yes, the cap will make management difficult. But if teachers want their compensation and benefits to go up 6-10% per year, as seemingly specified by their recent contract, school budgets are simply unsustainable. Income and taxes can’t possibly grow that fast! So, either a teachers union needs to be more conservative with their salary demands, or the teachers union will have to take some layoffs. Some teachers and parents will be disappointed. But that is the result of making maximum pay of existing teaching teachers the highest priority for the union and the school district. Teachers with seniority will benefit, and non-core teachers and juniors will be laid off. And towns will still be stretched by compensation, pensions, and health care.

  5. Whalers033 says:

    Recent contractual increases merely bring the district in line with norms for Suffolk County. For instance, a teacher would have to take a 14% pay cut to come work in Sag Harbor from less afluent districts in Western Suffolk and Nassau. In time, this difference will impact the quality of teacher Sag Harbor is able to attract. Comparable houses in other parts of Suffolk County are paying as much as 4x as much in property taxes. We have it better here than most will ever admit. Not all of the teachers’ I’ve encountered in the past two decades are created equal, but there are some who do dedicate more hours to their profession then many in this community would ever have you believe. Do we really want it such that those who teach our children can’t afford to live within our community?

  6. Taxpayer says:

    Re Whalers033:
    Do we really want it such that those who already live here can’t afford to stay here?

    Let’s look at some numbers grounded in reality. According to the most recent report available from the NYS EDUCATION DEPARTMENT Fiscal Analysis and Research Unit
    (see http://www.oms.nysed.gov/faru):

    Sag Harbor UFSD average expenditure per pupil 2008-2009: $32,759.

    Note that Ross School tuition for 2010-11 is K-4 $26,950, 5-8 $29,500, 9-12 $31,100.

    Our district is spending more per pupil than Ross School tuition.

    Given current spending levels, the entire model needs to be evaluated; we cannot just continue business as usual, raising taxes or else cutting things for the children.

    Re Whalers033:

    1) Relatives with comparable houses in Nassau and Suffolk do pay more (no summer only residents!), but it is nowhere near 3-4X. Besides, it is the per pupil expenditure which is important and Sag Harbor’s is high.

    2) The teacher pay and benefit scale is competitive with some of the best North Shore Nassau districts. Besides, in this “new normal” of high unemployment, it should not be difficult to attract qualified applicants regardless; let the district disclose how many applications they receive for each opening.

  7. restructure needed says:

    Thank you taxpayers and saggish for saying it so well. Yes, Sag Harbor has no problem attracting good teachers. Weren’t there over 2000 applicants for the new jobs opening up from last year’s openings?

    Perhaps consider this: the only answer to this mess to to enforce all public employees from the ground up to take a pay freeze for 2 years to recoup costs and save jobs. Meanwhile negotiate better healthcare plans, pensions, and realistic contributions. Then when $ is more stable, negotiate for reward based pay and good salaries for our educational leaders.

    Do public employees & their unions want to be part of the problem or part of the solution for the greater good and a sustainable future for the very children they are now teaching?

  8. sam says:

    whaler……most teachers are all HONE GROWN…..its not like those old farts will be moving UP ISLAND for higher pay ?? to give up their current teaching position anytime soon.

    in those MORE AFFLUENT THAN THE HAMPTONS areas…. well according to YOU they must have THE BEST TEACHERS….. if their taxes are higher !!

  9. sam says:

    ooppps HOME GROWN !!!!


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