It is spring. And that means one thing: the school budget process has reached the stage of public discussion.
For many districts, this annual ritual has become more akin to cannibalism – with public schools forced to cut to the bone teaching programs to pay for mandated increases like pensions, health benefits, and archaic regulations for contracting – the list is long.
Public education has been under a concerted attack since Reagan, dying a death of many cuts, but those who would destroy public education were handed their biggest weapon: No Child Left Behind and the so-called Accountability movement.
No Child Left Behind and the accountability movement – holding teachers entirely accountable for how students perform on tests – has been an excuse to privatize schools, to give taxpayer money to private schools, parochial schools and the quasi-public/private charter schools who are remarkably unaccountable.
By 2014, according to No Child Left Behind, 100 percent of school children will have to show mastery for a school district to be considered acceptable – even a successful school district like Great Neck is likely to miss that ridiculously unrealistic target.
The whole premise of No Child Left Behind and the Accountability Movement reduces students to widgets, as if the student in 2014 was the same product that started on the assembly line in 2002, and that somehow, the teacher in fifth grade had a hand in shaping the student from kindergarten.
But what if that student only arrived in the United States the month before? or if that child regularly goes to school without having done homework or studying for a test, or a child whose parent has just been taken to jail, or a child whose parents are going through a vicious divorce? What if that child came to school with the flu that day and the parent could not stay home from work to care for him?
Our teachers, our schools, our school districts are being held to account for aspects of a student’s life that are beyond control. (And yet, the steps that government could take to maximize a student’s success, like funding early childhood programs and affordable day care, are rejected.)
In the current climate, if a school or school district fails to meet the target in this respect, they are punished by diverting resources from that school to a charter school or profit-making entity.
NCLB is supposed to be replaced with a somewhat better law, ESEA, but so far, Congress does not seem to be willing to work together to get it done, as Great Neck School Board Vice President Fran Langsner reported, after the annual visit to the Capitol by the School Boards Association.
“Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has recognized this dilemma and has offered states the opportunity to apply for a waiver – New York has taken advantage and is waiting to hear if its application is accepted. But even if New York gets a waiver, the law needs to be reauthorized [with changes] because it is so inflexible in its present form, no waiver can compensate for the strict requirements we have to adhere to in the present form.”
First it is important to recognize what NCLB was all about, and if you thought it was about better preparing our youth to become leaders and innovators of the future, you would be wrong. NCLB was first and foremost to undermine public education, which the religious right was upset about because of the Rainbow Curriculum and prayer-in-school (you can hear the tone in Rick Santorum’s anti-public education rhetoric). Second was to destroy teachers unions, which tended to vote Democratic (charter schools tend not to be unionized, in fact, teachers do not even have to be certified or licensed). Third was to facilitate the transfer of public (taxpayer) money to private, for-profit and parochial entities.
The proof of this is demonstrated in what has transpired since NCLB has been in effect – schools have shown scant improvement (that is, once you eliminate the fraudulent results and manipulation of graduation rates) – indeed, only 17% of charter schools perform better than public schools and 37% do worse, according to NEA President Dennis Van Roekel.
That’s the squeeze on public education from one side.
Now, to complete the evisceration of public education comes the hammer from the other: New York State’s property tax cap.
It is an interesting proposition that how much money is spent is critical in all areas – think of defense spending, Wall Street salaries, movie stars, athletes – except education. The theory here, argued by none other than Governor Cuomo, is that throwing money at education is a waste. After all, New York State (so the theory goes) spends more on education than any other state, and yet, does not have the outcomes to show for it.
I don’t even know what that means, since it does not take into account any discussion of who the students are- the level of poverty, special needs, non-English speaking. But it does make for a great soundbite, and public education is certainly a wonderful scapegoat to funnel anti-tax anger.
School districts have been under pressure for decades to supply services that are mandated by federal and state government without the funds to pay for it. As a result, school districts have to raise the money from local property taxes, and depending upon how much a school district gets from state and federal aid, that is the amount that has to be raised.
Less than 5% of Great Neck’s budget is funded from state and federal aid, leaving 95% to be raised from local property taxes. In comparison, 50% of New York City’s massive education budget is funded from state aid.
This year, though, there is a new element in the game: New York State’s property tax cap that limits the increase property taxes to 2% or the inflation rate (CPI), whichever is less. If the school district exceeds that amount, the budget, which already goes before voters for approval, has to be adopted by a 60% vote instead of the 50%-plus-one.
The cap does not discriminate between the district that only generates half of its school budget from taxes, and ours, which depends on 95% of our budget for taxes. Indeed, the amount projected from state aid is shrinking, to a mere 3.23% of the budget.
Meanwhile, the district’s cost of contribution to retirement and group health insurance, is up $3.8 million – that’s the lion’s share of the $6.4 million increase in proposed spending ($199,747,079), and almost all of the $4.5 million total increase in budget that to be raised by property taxes (and that is allowed to be raised, under the tax cap).
“That effectively means that rest of entire budget is a zero increase to reflect the tax cap,” commented Don Ashkenase, a member of the board’s finance committee. “It highlights the tension we feel and so many other school districts are feeling across the state.”
Effectively that means that going forward, all the increase in spending in a school budget would have to go to fund pensions and health costs. It may even mean that to come up with those mandated increases, we would have to begin to fire teachers, guidance counselors or coaches, even close schools altogether as other districts have been forced to do.
The fiscal vise that the district is in almost mandates “encouraging” senior teachers who are at the highest rungs of the salary and pension ladder to leave, and hire new teachers at lower salary and now, at the much less generous Tier VI pension.
This year, the School Board did an unusual thing during the meeting when the proposed draft budget was introduced: John Powell, the district’s Assistant Superintendent for Business, did a whole seminar to explain how the property tax cap works and why the district is allowed to increase the amount to be raised by property taxes by 2.49% and still fall within the cap. The intention is to inform the electorate so that voters do not feel somehow abused because the tax hike will exceed 2% cap. (The operating budget will actually increase more, 3.32%.)
It took Mr. Powell six months of seminars, study and analysis to have the tools and knowledge to make that calculation, he said.
In a nutshell, though, it turns out that the state’s property-tax cap formula builds in incentives for districts to bond capital improvements and increase their capital assets, while hamstringing the operating budget.
I also did not hear any aspect of the formula that gives credit to a school district with an increasing enrollment, or when there is a growing concentration of students in secondary schools, since delivering secondary education is more expensive per pupil than elementary education.
It also doesn’t take into account the fact that our teachers union and our administrators union have voluntarily gone without salary increases for two years. What happens when our educators get tired of losing ground to inflation?
It is important to recognize that the so-called tax cap affects the amount to be raised from property taxes – which does not necessarily correlate to how much your individual property taxes will increase. Other factors go into the mix – the change in assessed valuation for all property, which is determined by Nassau County; what the assessors determine in your home’s fair market value relative to everyone else, and the proportion of the total property tax pie that is borne by residential homeowners, compared to the other three classes (commercial, condo/cooperative, utility).
This School Board and administration has always been extremely careful of spending and proved ingenious financiers at taking advantage of falling interest rates, for example, or a utility contract that rebuilt our aging boilers while guaranteeing lower energy spending. They have taken advantage of every available grant, and have proved their mettle in facing down requests for funding that they could not justify – like when a parent of a parochial school child wanted the district to finance bus transportation beyond the 17 mile limit; and in hiring detectives to go after out-of-district families that have fraudulently enrolled their children in our schools.
They practice zero-based budgeting – every line in the budget is analyzed and defended (in fact, you can see and participate in the process for yourself at the annual Budget Meeting, Saturday, March 31, beginning at 9:30 am at Great Neck South High School.)
Last year, the school district also brought out a budget that was within the 2% tax cap, even though it had not yet become state law, while other districts probably were not so quick to cut their budgets down to the bone in order to have a higher base when the tax cap went into effect this year.
But each year, it becomes harder and harder to keep from cannibalizing the teaching program in order to meet the squeeze of mandated expenses on one side, and the tax cap on the other.
State Senator Jack Martins had pledged that he would support the tax cap only if school districts were simultaneously relieved of mandates, like the ridiculous Wicks Law. But that has not happened, even though the state has a Mandate Relief Council that is going around the state hearing complaints and suggestions (you can submit your own ideas at www.governor.ny.gov/mandatereliefcouncil).
Actually, Senator Martins has already heard a whole list of where mandates could be relieved, during his own hearings last February (see GNN, 3/4/11). Here are some highlights:
- Amend the Triborough Amendment;
- Repeal the Wicks Law;
- Relieve communities of the mandate to turn over local tax dollars to state-imposed charter schools that are not locally accountable
- 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; 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
- 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
- Revisit new state mandate for the dramatic expansion of every employee’s ability to contest each and every performance evaluation
- Maintain BOCES, transportation and private excess costs as separate, expense-driven aids
Many school districts, forced to come up with the funds to pay the double-digit increase in pension contribution, have had to cut back on just about everything that isn’t absolutely mandated by the Core Curriculum – sports, music, theater, art – all of which actually play a significant role in achieving that ultimate mission of a child fulfilling their potential.
Combine this with a relentless focus on teaching to the test, and most public schools have become cold prisons instead of the palaces of knowledge and self-actualization they should be. It is no wonder that US graduation rates remain woefully low compared to other industrialized nations. (Great Neck’s graduation rates are 99% for general education students; 96% for all students including students with disabilities).
But at the Monday, March 12 School Board meeting, we were reminded again why Great Neck Public Schools are so exceptional, especially in this day and age, what it means to be committed to the mission of having every child fulfill their potential and cultivate in each student the desire and skills to be lifelong learners.
It’s called the Responsive Classroom, and the premise is that children learn best and are most successful in school when they have strong academic and social emotional skills.
We were treated to a video that showed how the premise is being implemented by a couple of dozen elementary school teachers who have already gone through the training – about 20-minutes of morning rituals that involve all the students in exercises in which they share information, learn the social niceties of shaking hands and looking someone in the eye when speaking, responding to their peer’s question, “How was your weekend?” by first saying, “Thank you for asking.”
Some of the exercises incorporate academic skills – like going around the circle and counting off by fives until you get to the “magic” number that determines who is “it,” who then continues the game. Some just enable kids to move around, in the process, making the teacher seem more “human.”
“The social curriculum is as important as the academic curriculum,” Kelly Newman, Assistant Superintendent for Elementary Education,” said in introducing the program. “No matter the demands about state testing, core learning standards, Responsive Classroom says we must stand firm in belief that social curriculum is as important as academics.”
Responsive Classroom is built upon the premises that “how children learn is as important as what they learn – a child’s learning process is as important as the content; the greatest cognitive growth occurs through social interaction; teachers must know our children individually, culturally and developmentally; that all parents want what is best for their children and we must work with parents as partners in educating children; that how adults at school work together is as important as their individual competence, that lasting change begins with the adult community.”
The video demonstrated some of the amazingly creative morning meeting “energizers” and “rituals” teachers have introduced that incorporate the 7 principles and 10 educational components of Responsive Classroom.
Great Neck teachers who are using the program say that implementing the techniques changes everything – reduces behavioral problems, improves classroom management, even changes the words they use with the children. In essence, it promotes a more positive culture
Last summer, 30 Great Neck elementary teachers volunteered their time to go through the training; this year, 30 more teachers took a one-day overview and this summer, 22 more teachers have volunteered to give up a week of their vacation time to take the training.
“We are always talking about a balance – the budget, educational program,” reflected School Board President Barbara Berkowitz. “Tonight we have had a true balance of what we do… we deal with financial pressures upon us but we don’t lose sight for one day of what our mission is– to make sure the children receive the best education from pre-K to graduation and beyond.”
And it affirms the principle underlying it all: children are not widgets.