Monday, March 10, 2008

Rallying For The Cause Of Education On Long Island

LIers Hit The Streets For "Fair Share" Of School Aid

Budget time in Albany. An election year in the State legislature. Prospects of cutbacks and deficits loom.

Time to rally the troops, stir the pot, and shout from the mountain top -- or at least from the street corner -- "show Long Island the money!"

Here's one Long Islander's take on the issue of school finance, followed by the local coverage of the recent "fare share" rally, sponsored by Long Island's Senate delegation, and most notably, the Dean of the New York State Senate, Deputy Majority Leader Dean G. Skelos.

We welcome your opinions, and offer you the opportunity to share your thoughts, on this and other topics of community concern, with your neighbors and fellow Long Islanders, by posting comments and submitting guest blogs.

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How Will "Fair Share" Play in Buffalo, NYC?

It will be interesting to see how Long Island and the rest of the State will fare if New York City takes the position that it ought to get its fair share of the taxes it pays to the State. School District expenditures are based upon three factors (with some reasonable flexibility built in to cover otherwise unanticipated but inevitable contingencies).

1. Expenditures that are reasonably based upon State mandated educational requirements;

2. Expenditures that are within the scope of discretionary additional services offered by the District;

3. Payment of principle and interest on School District debt, which may have originated as a mandated expense or a discretionary expense or a combination of both.

Under the NY State Constitution, education is the responsibility of the State and that is why Boards of Education are State agencies, not subject to the control of the County or of local governments. Local Boards of Education are responsible to the Commissioner of Education. When a local School District budget is defeated, that defeat does not, in any way, lessen the District's obligation to fund mandated educational requirements. Thus, the kinds of things that are cut are only discretionary programs, such as athletics and various extra-curricular activities, transportation for distances less than State mandates, etc.

The quality of education mandated by the State for each child should be roughly the same, allowing, of course, for special educational services that may be required for children with special needs. Variances in State aid to School Districts should be expected for three primary reasons:

1) Economies of scale that can be realized by school districts that have relatively dense populations are not realized by school districts that have small or widely spread populations;

2) Some areas of the State are, comparably, in financial distress. When the residents are taxed to an extent that is proportionally equivalent, based upon their financial circumstances, the State may reasonably fund more of those District's mandatory budgets;

3) Some Districts will go into financial emergency because of the need to build or repair or to attract adequate personnel.

It should also be noted that quite a few students who live on Long Island go to private schools. A part of the local Board of Education budget is required to be expended to provide transportation and educational materials for private school students. My impression is that private school attendance in most of the rest of the State is not as great as on Long Island.

In addition, some school districts have substantial commercial properties and others have very little commercial property. Commercial properties tend to lessen the tax impact on residential property owners. Upstate cow pastures tend not to have the same beneficial result. Of course, if agricultural areas get hit with heavier taxes, that cost will, eventually find its way down to the wallets of Nassau County food shoppers.

A discussion of "fair share" is a mockery of sound education unless it takes all of this into account. None of the talk I have heard gets down to that level of analysis, and much of the talk is simply what you might hear at a pep rally.

It will be interesting to see how State Senator Skelos' upstate Republican colleagues react to his "fair share" contentions. If Long Island is not getting its fair share, then it should be. It should also be kept in mind that the State may have to fund "fair shares" by increasing income tax and other taxes.

The signs are growing that the United States is falling behind some formerly second and third world countries in the education race. It may well be that we are not getting full value for our education dollar; however getting us to full and effective education will likely mean that, for every dollar saved, a dollar or more will have to be spent on something else.

The two greatest potential areas of savings are probably: a) regionalization of school districts, i.e, consolidation, and b) decrease in discretionary spendings, such as athletics and other extracurricular activities. Proposal of either one of those would likely raise a considerably negative howl amongst most Long Island school districts. Regionalization increases the opportunity for putting out to bid larger, combined, orders for goods and services. The result will be that large suppliers will provide better prices. Great, right? Well, there are many local suppliers who are dependent upon school district orders for things like art supplies, sporting goods, food, etc. Cutting the local stores out of the loop may be a downturn in local jobs and rents and the taxes they were paying.

The issues are not easy to fully understand or resolve. In the absence of outright waste or larceny, there is always a price to pay for saving money, and it means making a clear choice as to priorities.

Henry Boitel
Rockville Centre, New York
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From The East Meadow Herald:

Taking it to the streets

Braving a blustery March wind and a passing snow shower, more than 1,500 taxpayers, educators, students, parents and business and labor leaders from Nassau and Suffolk counties converged on Ellsworth W. Allen Park in Farmingdale last Saturday, imploring Gov. Eliot Spitzer to restore funding he cut to Long Island schools in his proposed 2008-09 education budget.

The rally was organized by Long Island-s Senate majority delegation, and spearheaded by Deputy Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre). Dr. William Johnson, superintendent of Rockville Centre schools, and Mark Masin and Lorrie Brady from the Board of Education were among those representing the district at the demonstration.

We want our fair share, many chanted as they held up signs that read, Underfunded overtaxed, LI Schools a Smart Investment, SOS Save Our Schools, Fair Share for LI Schools and Gov. Spitzer: Cut Taxes, Not School Funds.

As music blasted from speakers mounted on a truck, the event got under way. Skelos took to a microphone and introduced the fair share message that became the protest-s oft-repeated refrain. He thanked the crowd for attending and pledged to work to maintain the quality education our students deserve, and get the real property tax relief their parents deserve.
This is about our kids, and we want to make sure they have all the opportunities we had, Skelos said.

He promised that local elected officials would partner with the regional groups at the rally. Calling it a united team effort, Skelos said that, together, Long Islanders would overcome the slashed state school aid that eventually would result in property tax increases which already overburdened taxpayers cannot afford. This is a critical battle with the politicians and the governor, he told the crowd.

Sen. Kemp Hannon offered some disturbing numbers. He pointed out that while 17 percent of New York State-s school-age children are enrolled in Long Island schools, the region has traditionally received less than 13 percent of state school aid. Next year, Long Island schools are slated to receive only 8.2 percent of overall state aid. Those figures drew loud boos from the crowd.

Skelos noted that Long Island's business community understands that today-s students are that community-s future. When we educate our kids and when we send them to college, he said, we want them to come back.

John Durso, president of the 250,000-member Long Island Federation of Labor, spoke on behalf of working men and women who are already burdened by high taxes. How many millionaires are out there today? Durso asked. No one responded. That-s what I thought.

This is not about downstate, upstate, it's about our communities and our kids and our fair share, he said.

Matt Crosson, president of the Long Island Association, a business and civic organization, noted that 60 percent of the school districts whose state funding was cut are on Long Island, and that two-thirds of the districts on the Island received funding increases of only 2 percent. He disputed Spitzer-s recent remark about interest-driven sectionalism, saying it wasn-t selfish for Long Island to ask for its fair share.

Gracemarie Rozea, director of the Nassau Region PTA, made one of the most passionate speeches. She praised the high quality of education that students on Long Island already receive, but said that schools must be funded properly for such achievement to continue.

Rozea said that local leaders have gone to bat for Long Island in the past, and she has no doubt they will do so again this year as they finalize the 2008-09 state budget. Together, Rozea explained, Long Island-s lawmakers and citizens must call on the disconnected statewide leader in Albany to do what-s right. We must make sure our children are not left behind, she said, and we will do so by getting our fair share. Our children are relying on us.

Long Island is not a cash cow to be used to supplement the rest of the state, Rozea continued, urging the audience to get the word out and to call, write and e-mail their local leaders and state officials in Albany. Please listen to us, Governor Spitzer, we are strong, she said. We are telling [you] loud and clear that we demand and deserve our fair share.

Zuha Gazi, a high school student in Half Hollow Hills, said that there is a misconception in Albany that everyone on Long Island is wealthy. People-s wealth, she said, is in the equity of their homes, not in cash. That makes it especially difficult for Long Islanders to pay their property tax bills, which average $16,000.

Craig Workman, another Half Hollow Hills senior who is a member of his school's Legislative Committee, said, It-s not our intention to take funding away from New York City or upstate. He said there was a warped perception of Long Island-s school districts and that it was time that regional costs, which are 50 percent higher on Long Island than in the rest of the state, were taken into account.

Sachem School District teacher Diane Hettrich, representing New York State United Teachers, said the governor has proposed a record $1.5 billion increase in funding for education throughout the state, yet many Long Island districts are seeing cuts.

There is still a month until the April 1 state budget deadline, Hettrich told the crowd, so there is time to make their voices heard. It is imperative that the Legislature and governor achieve a budget that supports children, she said.

Skelos said he was extremely pleased by the turnout at the rally, and that it shows Long Islanders care about their schools. It may be cold out here today, he said, but we-re going to turn the heat up on our governor.

And Johnson said, It's hard to argue with the senators. We need our fair share.

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