When the two-percent property tax levy cap was adopted last year it was done alongside a promise that New York State would scale back on the unfunded mandates it requires school districts and local governments to meet.
So far, for school administrators like Bridgehampton Superintendent Dr. Lois Favre, the promise of mandate relief has been just that — a promise, and one that has gone unfulfilled even as school districts begin the preliminary process of drafting their budgets.
Last Friday, at SUNY College at Old Westbury, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Mandate Relief Council held one of several forums it will host throughout the state to hear from stakeholders about what kind of mandates should be rolled back or readdressed.
According to New York State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele, Jr., a package of mandate relief is expected to be rolled out in March, although he stressed he believes true relief will come over several years.
In the meantime, before a final package is rolled out, everyone is being asked to comment and Dr. Favre and Sag Harbor School Superintendent Dr. John Gratto are by no means short of ideas.
“One substantive relief that would assist Bridgehampton would be some control of healthcare costs that have a major impact on our budget, despite efforts towards employee contributions,” said Dr. Favre. “Another area that should be seriously considered is aligning special education requirements with the federal regulations, as New York State seems to add many more requirements to what is required federally.”
Dr. Favre said she would also like to see the rules allowing student choice to attend charter schools changed so that it is limited to schools that are failing.
“Bridgehampton has a strong program that is designed to meet the individual needs of students and consistently makes adequate yearly progress, yet parents can opt for a charter school placement, even if we can effectively meet the students needs,” she said.
Dr. Favre added the transportation costs coupled with tuition are tremendous in these cases.
Lastly, Dr. Favre said new requirements for teacher training, evaluation, and curriculum leads to less time in the classroom and a lot of unanticipated costs for school districts.
“I would say by far and away, the biggest mandate relief for school districts, and the villages and towns would be the repeal of The Triborough Amendment, which requires public employees to get an automatic salary increase annually,” said Dr. Gratto.
The 1982 Triborough Amendment requires public employers to provide step salary increases annually to their employees even if they are unable to reach agreement on a new contract. Since the terms of the old contract remains the same, there can be less of a motivation for a union to offer concessions during contract negotiations.
“It has the consequential result of inflating salary increases,” said Dr. Gratto. “If that was repealed and there were no salary increases given until a contract was settled it would equalize the playing field for both sides.”
Dr. Gratto said pension reform, which would require employees to pay into retirement, helps in the long run, but in the short-term offers little relief.
He suggested the state could revisit its retirement formula, allowing teachers to retire after working to the age of 55 with 25 years of service rather than 30.
Last week, Dr. Gratto met with Thiele and New York State Senator Ken LaValle to suggest having Suffolk County alter the time in which it collects school taxes. Of the 62 counties in New York, Suffolk is the only one that collects school taxes in January as opposed to September. As a result, schools borrow money through Tax Anticipation Notes (TAN) to see themselves through to January, Dr. Gratto added.
“Even though we have favorable interest rates, this district spends about $125,000 a year in TAN interest,” said Gratto, translating to millions spent throughout the county.
“That is two or three teaching positions that could be preserved by not having to spend that money on interest,” said Dr. Gratto.