Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Thank You, Dean Skelos!

State Senator, Head of LI Delegation, Spearheaded Budget Fight For More Local School Aid

As is customary, we're going to give credit where credit is due.

In this case, to
New York State Senator Dean G. Skelos, who, along with other members of Long Island's legislative delegation, fought tooth-and-nail, not only to restore cuts in State Aid to Long Island's school districts as proposed in the Executive Budget, but to secure one of the largest aid packages ever seen in these parts.

Kudos, indeed, to the
dean of the State Senate.

While we have, on occasion, butted heads with the Deputy Majority Leader on local issues -- where it too often seems that all but those in his native Rockville Centre are forgotten stepchildren wearing hand-me-downs -- we bow in praise to Senator Skelos on his aggressive, relentless, and ultimately successful challenge to the Governor's cuts in State Aid to Long Island's schools.

That said, and in all deference to the Senator's negotiating skills and riptide-like pull among his colleagues in Albany, the money Long Island's school districts will see in 2007-08, while maintaining the historic (approximately 12%) proportion of State Aid to education, neither equalizes the distribution of aid among all of New York's school districts, nor solves, in any manner, the inequity or the burden of the Draconian property tax.

Our schools will, barring substantive rather than cosmetic changes in the way we finance education, still be forced to rely most heavily on the homeowner for funding, supplementing the failed STAR program through increased property tax rates and levies. Note, too, that increases in State Aid will be largely offset by cuts in relief our school districts traditionally receive through STAR.

And throwing more money, even at the most deserving school districts, does little to encourage districts to cut costs, let alone to consolidate services.

Yes, homeowners will likely see another, perhaps slightly larger, property tax rebate check this year [remember to reduce, by the amount of the rebate you received last year, the real estate taxes you take as a deduction on your 2006 tax return], but this is merely placeboesque salve on the malignant wound, rather than a cure of the underlying disease.

The politiking, special interest (seldom that of the taxpayer) lobbying, and partisan-rancor in Albany continues, as does the policy of making important decisions -- including how our tax money is spent -- behind closed doors, without input of the rank-and-file.

Long Island's short-term gain comes at the expense of other districts across the state, and the disparity in aid between upstate and downstate is not narrowed by the recently enacted revisions to the State Aid formulae, themselves but poorly applied Band-Aids lacking both adhesive and palliative balm.

Still, for the immediate relief, let's not look a gift horse in the mouth, or fail to acknowledge the extraordinary effort made by Senator Skelos and the rest of Long Island's State Senators and Assemblymembers who, to a person and in true bipartisan fashion, went to bat for Long Island's children.
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Long Island Aid Comes at Westchester’s Expense
By Ford Fessenden

FOR school districts in the suburbs of New York City, there was much to celebrate in the new state budget: lots of new money, for rich districts and poor alike, much more than Gov. Eliot Spitzer had originally proposed.

But the deal that legislative leaders struck with Mr. Spitzer, allowing the budget to be pushed through at the last minute, contained a new formula for what is called high-tax aid.

And this new formula sends shovels full of dollars to Long Island but only spoonfuls to Westchester. It was so carefully worded, and its impact is so lopsided, that Democrats are calling it retribution for the defeat last year of a Republican state senator from Westchester, Nicholas A. Spano.

Republicans, who control the Senate, did not work very hard to dispel that idea last week.

“This would never have happened if Senator Nick Spano was still there,” said Senator Dean G. Skelos, the deputy majority leader from Long Island, during a radio interview in New York City last week.

In a later interview, he insisted that Republicans had not sought retribution but that Westchester’s new senator, Andrea Stewart-Cousins, and her Democratic colleagues “fell asleep at the switch.”

Ms. Stewart-Cousins replied that the deal was made behind closed doors. “When you have Dean Skelos even pretending that somehow I sat in the chamber and said nothing — as if this were some discussion that was open and aboveboard — it is absolutely ridiculous,” she said.

Westchester schools still got lots of money, but in the sibling psychology that prevails in debates over education aid in Albany, there was an outcry over why the county did not get what Nassau and Suffolk got. The Westchester County’s Assembly delegation voted against the budget package, although the county senators did not, and last week vowed to undo the new formula.

“This is a gun that’s being pointed at Westchester today,” said Assemblyman Richard L. Brodsky, a Westchester Democrat. “If you legitimize this, it could be pointed at New York City or Nassau or Syracuse tomorrow.”

Mr. Spitzer’s budget director, Paul E. Francis, scolded Mr. Brodsky in a letter last week for his criticism of the package, saying that Westchester made out very well in the new budget. Not only will state aid increase, but the county will also benefit from School Tax Relief, or STAR, rebate increases, he said.

The governor’s communications director, Darren Dopp, also criticized Mr. Brodsky and defended Ms. Stewart-Cousins. “He was not talking about Westchester community issues in budget negotiations, but Andrea was,” Mr. Dopp said.

Overall state aid to Westchester schools will increase by 9.4 percent next year, slightly less than the 10.1 percent overall increase that Long Island will get. Many districts that would have received a little new money under Governor Spitzer’s original proposal, which would have increased school aid 5 percent on Long Island and 6 percent in Westchester, will get substantially more.

“What we did, what the Republican senators did, was to drive aid to suburban school districts throughout the state,” Mr. Skelos said.

Casual readers of the budget bill could be forgiven for missing the big Westchester repudiation. The piece of the aid formula that drove more money to Long Island was based on a ratio of the total property tax revenue generated from a county’s residents. This was then divided by the total amount of income all residents reported on tax returns.

Here’s how the formula was written: All school districts in counties in which tax levies were more than 4.2 percent of income would get $147.29 in high-tax aid for every student enrolled. In counties that fell below the cutoff, only certain school districts would get aid, $30 per student.

Westchester has high taxes, but it also has the highest incomes in the state by far — about $300,000 per student in the schools, compared with about $160,000 on Long Island and it fell below that cutoff because of its high average income.

In spite of its many affluent enclaves, Nassau and Suffolk Counties are more diverse than Westchester, and their ratios are above the cutoff. The result is that all Long Island districts will get the higher aid amount, a total of more than $70 million of the $100 million in high-tax aid.

Only some Westchester districts get aid, and it amounts to a total of $1.2 million.

“The goal was giving money to Long Island,” said Assemblywoman Amy Paulin, a Democrat from Scarsdale. “What they did was figure out a way to manipulate the numbers to make a formula to do that.”

Westchester state lawmakers also saw large amounts of school aid dollars get distributed to neighboring counties: Orange, Ulster and Putnam. Under the budget agreement, they will all get more than Westchester does.

On Long Island, where Republicans hold eight of the nine Senate seats, school officials were happy with their state money.

“We haven’t seen the final numbers yet, but we are very grateful that after many years when Long Island didn’t get its fair share of funding, our legislators worked so hard to get us more,” said Carole G. Hankin, the superintendent of the Syosset Central School District.

But Westchester school officials joined in the outrage. “It certainly does seem like there were some last-minute political deals, which is unfortunate because there was talk about having a formula and sticking to it,” said Lisa P. Davis, the president of the Westchester-Putnam School Boards Association.

Both school officials and Westchester Democrats said they would try to undo the high-tax-aid formula.

"The door did not close on this,” Mr. Brodsky said.

Kate Stone Lombardi and Linda Saslow contributed reporting.

Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company
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Fixing the School Aid Formula

The New York State Legislature passed a practically on-time budget last week with a lot in it to be happy about. That good news was obscured almost immediately by rounds of loudly self-serving analysis by lawmakers over the way the budget distributes education aid to the New York suburbs. Neither the complaining (in Westchester) nor the crowing (on Long Island) was entirely appropriate.

It’s complicated, but let’s discuss. One of Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s prime directives on taking office was to overhaul New York’s perverse system of doling out school aid. It is called a “formula,” a label meant to give the appearance of mathematical objectivity to what has been a yearly exercise in political scheming and muscle-flexing.

That scheming has long sent disproportionate amounts of aid to districts represented by powerful Republican Senators (i.e., Long Island) while robbing places like New York City of billions of dollars. This year Mr. Spitzer tried to fix the so-called “foundation formula” to take out the politics and to direct more money to the districts that need it.

The outcome wasn’t perfect. In the end, Mr. Spitzer had to add about $100 million in new school aid, and send a fat chunk of it to Long Island, so Republicans there would not sabotage budget negotiations. Because of this deal, sealed behind closed doors, Long Island walked away with about as much education money as it had in the past. Westchester’s share of the new aid was only about $1.2 million, which led lawmakers there to howl about being unfairly singled out by “destructive” tactics made possible by incomprehensible calculations buried deep in the document. Long Island lawmakers, meanwhile, were only too happy to take credit for bagging about $70 million of the $100 million, which was earmarked for high-tax districts like theirs.

Mr. Spitzer’s response to the kibitzing is to point to the overall fairness of the new foundation formula, which increased aid by 9.4 percent in Westchester, 8.6 percent in Suffolk and 13.4 percent in Nassau. The high-tax adjustment did benefit Long Island, but that windfall was offset by a sharp reduction elsewhere: The property-tax relief Long Island gets through the School Tax Relief program, or STAR, was cut by about $50 million.

Westchester, meanwhile, had its own ameliorating budget tweak: an extra $8.5 million for perennially strapped Yonkers.

Mr. Spitzer and the Legislature have clearly not removed all the fiddling from the budget process. You can be sure that Westchester lawmakers will fight fiercely to adjust things to their benefit, as they have every right to do. But the bottom line for this year: Westchester made out O.K. Long Island did better than O.K. The New York City schools did well, and will do better in coming years, and so the rigged process that unfairly brought wheelbarrows of cash to Long Island over the years will not be sustainable. The process of adjusting an unjust system is far from over. But at least it has begun.

Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company

1 comment:

  1. Steamed In Valley StreamWednesday, April 11, 2007 9:56:00 AM

    Some twenty-five years ago, when Senator Dean Skelos first took his seat in the State Legislature, my property tax bill was under $4,000.

    Today, a generation later, Senator Skelos -- now the Deputy Majority Leader -- is still in Albany, and my property tax bill tops $10,000.

    Yeah, thanks Senator Skelos. Thanks alot!