Friday, July 10, 2009

Paying For Public Schools In New York

More Is Needed Than Just Consolidating Non-Instructional Services

Governor David Paterson, on his recent visit to Long Island, announced a State grant of $2 million (wonder where they're getting the money from, withheld Senate salaries and stipends?) to BOCES (Board of Cooperative Educational Services) designed to get local school districts -- of which there are 124 on Long Island -- to consolidate the so-called back office, services that range from insurance and utilities to supplies and out-of-district transportation.

“Our system of local government is outdated and overly complicated, with thousands of separate entities providing overlapping and duplicative services that also keep costs up. These grants, like the one awarded to Nassau Board of Cooperative Education Services, will help to modernize the delivery of services and save property taxpayers’ money,” Governor Paterson said. “Consolidating local government operations will reduce waste, lower the cost of doing business and ease property taxes for the people of Long Island and across New York.”

Of course, administrative costs, overlapping initiatives, redundant programs -- and not to mention 124 separate staffs, from quarter million dollar Superintendents on down -- drain Long Islanders' bank accounts, especially since the source for most of the funding for such costs is the school property tax, accounting for upwards of 60% of the local property tax bill.

New York City operates on a single school system, serving nearly one million students. And yet, the resistance to consolidating Long Island's school districts into two -- Nassau and Suffolk -- is akin to that of a super bug which no antibiotic can knock out.

We'd lose our identities if school districts were merged.


Baldwin would remain Baldwin and Garden City, Garden City.

Does Thomas Jefferson High lose its identity to Susan Wagner, or Bay Ridge to Bayside? Of course not.

The identity is equally as strong in New York City's school "districts" -- sometimes more so (just check out the PSAL championships) -- as it is in any school district on Long Island.

Failing school districts will drag down the better performing school districts.

Not true.

Does Bushwick drag down Bronx High School of Science? We don't think so.

In fact, consolidating services, as well as resources, would likely serve to improve the lot -- educationally speaking, and otherwise -- of poorer performing districts, such as Roosevelt and Wyandanch, while having little impact upon the positive experience of, say, Garden City or Great Neck.

That said, to think that merging the many into one -- or two -- would substantially cut the bottom line (at least so as to significantly reduce the property tax burden) would be naive, at best.

It is not, in reality, how much we spend on public education (although, that is certainly a part of it), but rather, where that funding comes from.

Consider that, here on Long Island, our school districts receive back from the State, at most, 25 cents from every income tax dollar we, the people, send to Albany. In most districts, the actual return is more like 12 cents on the dollar. Add to that diminished return the unfunded State and Federal mandates -- programs that must be provided by the districts, and paid for, locally, by you.

Federal funding, under Leave No Child Behind and other failed initiatives, is negligible, amounting to less than 6 cents on the dollar in most instances.

So where does the rest of the money come from to finance that public education as guaranteed under the New York Constitution?

The property tax levy, of course.

And that, in a nutshell, is what burns Long Islanders more than anything else. A regressive, often oppressive tax, not based on ability to pay, which escalates annually with rising costs (from salaries, to pensions, to health insurance, to gas and electric), with the State's contribution (our money, as well) decreasing with every deficit and budget gap.

Clearly, we cannot continue on this destructive path, lest we bankrupt every Long Island household to payroll 124 separate and distinct school districts.

So, what do we do?

First, the State aid to education formulae -- on the books and shortchanging students for decades -- needs to be revised by the legislature, should they ever get back to work.

The biggest slices of the State aid pie are disproportionately awarded to upstate school districts (an apparent throw back to the days when upstaters ran the show), with downstate districts, including those on Long Island, getting mere crumbs.

No student in New York is worth more, or less, than any other.

There must be parity in State aid to all school districts, assuring the equality guaranteed under law.

And that aid must take into account mandates, which need to be fully funded by the State -- and the Feds.

And where's this money to come from, in an era that finds the State broke and broken? Well, let's start by cutting all the pork that comes out of Albany, spending the taxpayers' hard-earned money on the beef -- our children and our future.

Let's come up with a workable plan -- even Senator Dean Skelos had one -- that would slash local property taxes. Whatever happened to the Property Tax Relief and Excellence in Education Act, Dean? Not as important as which Senator gets what, we suppose.

Then there's the dreaded property tax itself.

New Yorkers already pay an income tax, a sales tax, and sundry other taxes and fees that feed the State's coffers quite handily. The added burden of a property tax, particularly as a means to finance our public schools, is untenable and unsustainable.

Do we have a revenue problem in New York, or a spending problem?

Are there issues of accountability unaddressed by either State or school district?

Are we funding the future, or squandering educational opportunities by financing a system of public schools that is not only behind the eightball, but, disturbingly, behind the times?
And, finally, is the method of funding our public schools, fundamentally through a property tax, adequate, acceptable, and fiscally prudent, or, as we suspect, arcane, archaic, and financially flawed?

We've been talking "think out of the box" for some time. Now, it is time to actually open that box, and step outside.

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