If the goal of New York State’s lawmakers is to reduce the burden of local property taxes, a place to start is public schools, because that accounts for 60-65 percent of property tax bill – that is, except if you are New York City, where you don’t pay school taxes from property taxes at all.
But representatives from the state’s school boards association, teachers union and school superintendents offered lists of unfunded mandates, that if cut, could provide the needed relief.
But State Lawmakers have another, bigger aim: taking away local control.
And like in Wisconsin, where the larger aim behind the assault on public workers is to break up unions, in New York State a tax cap on local property taxes is aimed at removing the ability of communities to determine the kind of public school experience they will provide.
So it is worthwhile to actually see what representatives of public education are proposing, and what State lawmakers are ignoring.
At a hearing, “The True Path to Reducing New York’s Real Property Tax Burden: Mandate Relief and Tax Caps,” co-hosted by New York State, Senator John Flanagan, chair of the Senate Standing Committee on Education, and Senator Jack M. Martins, chair of the Standing Committee on Local Government, held at the Nassau County Executive Building in Mineola, Thursday, Feb 17, Lorraine Deller, Executive Director of the Nassau-Suffolk School Boards Association, provided this list to state lawmakers:
- Sunset all existing mandates and reinstate only those are deemed essential. Impose no mandates that are not fully funded by the State.”
- Amend the Triborough Amendment to the Taylor Law, ending requirement to grant automatic step increases beyond expiration of a contract
- Repeal the costly Wicks Law that has cost local and state taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars
- Maintain requirement that Long Island schools be held harmless for back payments of successful assessment challenges [the new legislation adopted by Nassau County].
- Provide greater state funding of special education costs
- Provide relief from volatile increases in pension contributions and health insurance costs
- Honor commitment to reimburse schools for MTA payroll tax payments; expand reimbursement to BOCES and special act districts
- Enforce Chapter 287, Law of 2004, to facilitate Long island schools’ access to NYPA power; permit schools to “bundle” buildings in order to take advantage of declining rate structure for electric costs
- Remove impediments to inter-municipal sharing of services
- Allow schools the option to utilize national cooperative purchasing contracts and to cooperatively purchase with other states and municipalities
- Relieve communities of the mandate to turn over local tax dollars to state-imposed charter schools that are not locally accountable
- Address deficiencies in the “Foundation Formula” that deny Long Island its fair share of state aid and contribute to the inequitable burden placed on local property taxpayer
- Oppose attempts to shift costs for summer school special education to local school district budgets
- Permit school districts to establish reserve funds for TRS and retiree health insurance, recognizing the significant long-term fiscal obligations these items impose
- Utilize more accurate regional cost and wealth factors in determining a community’s ability to pay when formulating all state aid distributions
- Maintain the requirement of a local referendum for the merger of school districts; provide incentive aid and adequate transition funding for school district consolidation
- Revisit new state mandate for the dramatic expansion of every employee’s ability to contest each and every performance evaluation
- Fully fund new state mandate that imposes additional training requirements on board of education members
- Maintain BOCES, transportation and private excess costs as separate, expense-driven aids
- Require that all Bills contain a full disclosure of local cost and tax impact
- Hold school districts harmless when properties are removed from the local tax rolls by state and other governmental agencies
- Expand the use of impact fees for school districts
- Amend the Real Property Tax Law to permit assessment and taxation of tax-exempt property used for business purposes
Great Neck Public Schools Superintendent Tom Dolan was even more specific in actually going over the 2007-8 budget of $171 million to determine how much of it represented unfunded mandates: $22.3 million, or 13%.
Big chunks of these mandates are regulatory and could not be waived without adversely impacting children – for example, special education. And even the state lifted a requirement on Academic Intervention Services, most Nassau schools still provided it (and Great Neck has offered such assistance before the state mandated it).
But Dolan identified a second category of an even dozen regulations that could be eliminated immediately, with no adverse impact, among them:
- Transportation: districts are required to reserve seat on the bus for every student eligible to ride, whether they use the bus or now. “We are frequently assailed why we drive largely empty school buses. Were we permitted to schedule based on actual use, there could be tens of thousands of dollars saved for each district.”
- Teacher mentoring: This existed in every district before mandate, but mandating has created a cottage industry that costs Great Neck $100,000 a year. We would continue to provide mentoring, but we wouldn’t have to pay for it, if the mandate was lifted.
- Every school district is required to have three auditors [the result of the Roslyn School District scandal]: external, internal and an internal claims auditor, and still be subject to audits by the State Comptroller. Dispensing with the internal auditor would save $50,000. “We are all motivated to economize, and would do it without an auditor.”
- Mandate to supply each student with a calculator . “Whether the student has the means or not, we must supply, sticking Great Neck with a bill for $70,000.
- Excessive testing program imposed by No Child Left Behind. Districts are now required to test in each grade, 4-8, in order to determine progress toward graduation requirements. “The schools you represent are among the leaders in academic achievement; we would do nothing to jeopardize that, but testing every one of these children in math and Language Arts is doing nothing. A program of cohort testing or alternate year would save thousands and improve productivity.” In fact, the state waived the 8th grade Social Studies exam (as a cost savings), “but we are not worried about their achievement.”
- Mandated surveys of violence in schools – homicides, sexual assaults, felonies, the frequency of corporal punishment. “Student safety is our responsibility, but these forms shouldn’t be an annual requirement for schools with our records.”
- Mandated notifications of sex offenders: “This is an impractical solution and a criminal justice requirement; the cost shouldn’t be imposed on schools.”
- Schools are required to report a body index, and dental screening. “this is a toothless mandate because there is no recourse for us if we find a family did not get a dental examination for their child. Elimination of this requirement could save thousands.
- Mandatory asbestos training – at $32,000/year – we think should be taken as shared service
- All district employees are entitled to a full pay day off to donate blood and have cancer screening – absence requires hiring a substitute. Why can’t these things be attended to during off days? This may be supremely well intentioned but should be waived.
Andrew Palotta, Executive Vice President of New York State United Teachers, was even more emphatic in describing the impact of a tax cap coupled with cuts in state funding, indicated that teachers were willing to look for ways to cut expenses in health care contributions and pensions. But teachers’ contributions have been going up, as well, and he questioned why the state doesn’t make better use of the fact that there are “one million souls” in the NYSUT
“People are upset with out-of-control health premiums – more than wages, that’s the biggest friction point- across all unions. When you have commonly prescribed drugs in huge volumes, that go up 9-11% n cost, there is no reason for that.”
Making better use of BOCES, which was established to facilitate cooperate purchasing and greater efficiencies across a region.
“You haven’t provided enough standardized mission for all BOCES… so if they were all required to enter into procurement, to work with library districts (for example on Internet services), transportation planning, payroll, IT. The strength is also a weakness – let them figure out what they can do, maybe have reached the point where there needs a common core mission.”
How about enabling schools to cut into their billion dollar energy bill? A 25% reduction in expense would mean $250 million savings year, from such things as installing solar panels, motion sensors, tightening up the building “envelope” with caulking, and doing other things that have the added benefit of making buildings a better, healthier, more efficient environment that cuts down on absenteeism and operating expense. And the capital improvements would generate green jobs in the region.
“No one would disagree with the need to create green jobs. Being environmentally friendly is something we should aspire to, when we deal with mandate relief and current situation,” Sen. Martins replied.
Addressing the pension problem, Palotta noted that part of that is the stock market crash. Before that, school districts and other municipalities were off the hook for about six years, paying in very little, because the bulk of the funding came from the gains in the stock market. After the 2008 crash, municipalities had to make up the difference, big time.
If the issue is helping the poor senior on fixed income who is being pushed out of the family home because of property taxes, Palotta offered a circuit breaker as an alternative to the property tax cap. In fact, such income-based exemptions are already in place at the state and local level.
Martins dismissed the circuit-breaker idea out of hand, saying it would simply shift the burden. But the underlying theory of that statement is that there is waste in a school budget that can be cut.
We asked for specific responses to the proposals presented during the hearing – for example, what the Senators would do to repeal Wicks Law – but instead, received a press release in which Sen. Martins stated:
“As I have stated since the tax cap was passed with bi-partisan support in the Senate, it is an important first step in reducing the tax burden but it has to be tied directly to mandate relief. With the implementation of the tax cap being a strong possibility, our local governments and school districts must be given the ability to meet the cap and thus provide our taxpayers real relief.”
There are those who would argue which step should come first.
–Karen Rubin, Long Island Populist Examiner
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