Economic Reality and Education

By Warren Jordans

The defeated school capital improvement vote in Canandaigua came as no surprise. The project was soundly defeated by almost 1,000 votes with over 3,700 residents casting ballots. The Canandaigua Board of Education responded to this loss with a statement that they will now re-evaluate the needs and develop another strategy. Similarly, the recently defeated Naples school capital improvement vote solicited a similar response from the Naples Board of Education. According to Superintendent Ward’s NCSversation (February 20th in the Naples Record) the Naples Board of Education is reviewing the feedback received from property owners and are making changes to the original proposal with a re-vote scheduled for March 22, 2011. This pattern of negative voter response is not local or regional, but national in scale. From New Jersey to California, the overall cost of education is being hotly debated.

Anyone surprised by this trend must be operating in a bubble or independently wealthy. The fiscal crisis has affected every state and New York State is no exception. To that end, Education was one of the focal points of our new Governor’s proposed NYS budget. Education is the largest piece of the budget and has been placed on the chopping block. Everyone should have known cuts were coming. Everyone should have expected that drastic changes were on the horizon. Everyone who has had to cut expenses from their own household budgets also should have expected that our educational institutions would need to do the same. Everyone that is, except our Board of Education and school administrators. Did our academicians and administrators think they were exempt? Are they asleep at the switch? Have they read a newspaper, heard the Governor’s message, read a press release from the New York State School Board Association or members of the State Senate?

Education in New York has always been a sacred cow. The mere inference that someone questioned a capital improvement plan, school budget, academic initiative, athletic program or school lunch program strikes panic at Board of Education meetings and in administrative offices. Panic turns to verbal confrontation when you question tenure, salaries and benefits of faculty and staff of a school district. If you question why the most costly physical structure in the community is only used 185 days per year you are creating a “perfect storm.” Compare salaries, benefits, retirement, health insurance and work days with any other private, corporate or government sector and the discussion is intense. Say “it’s for the kids and an investment in the future” and the sacred cow gets fatter and continues to feed in manicured green pastures. Up until now…

A local school superintendent has been quoted as saying that the school board and school are “driven by statistics”. I think some of statistics are driven by the State Department of Education and some are driven by the District. Statistics rarely tell the whole story. They are usually indicators. Those indicators, when used appropriately and judiciously by administrators can be a factor affecting a decision, but certainly do not tell the entire story in and of themselves.

According to the State of New York, 2011-12 Executive Budget Briefing Book, New York public schools spend more per pupil ($17,173) than any other state and 67 percent above the national average. While the need to improve educational outcomes remains, the high cost of education has strained both State and local taxpayers. New York is the only state to be in the top six in both state funding per pupil and local funding per pupil.

In the last decade, the NYS increased its support for schools by 53 percent, from $13.7 billion to $20.9 billion. During that time, overall spending by New York public schools increased even more dramatically, by 70 percent, from $31 billion in 2000-01 to $53 billion in 2010-11. Statewide increases in school spending, State support for education, and school property tax increases all far outpace the rate of inflation. New Yorkers have maintained the highest per-pupil spending levels in the nation even in these difficult financial times. Education is the largest area of State spending.

Across the state, 279 school superintendents, or more than 40 percent of superintendents, receive salary and benefits totaling $200,000 or higher, while more than 2,000 school administrators receive salary and benefits totaling more than $150,000 or higher, Governor Andrew Cuomo suggested those salaries needed to be cut, in order to prove education is more about students and less about high-paying administrators.

The issue of school district consolidation was also discussed by Cuomo. He said the state currently has 676 school districts, of which 200 have less than 1,000 students. “We’ve been talking about consolidation for a long time,” Cuomo said. “Now is the time to do it.”

New York’s high education spending has not resulted in high student performance. New York ranks 40th in graduation rates and 34th in the nation in the percentage of adults who have a high school diploma or the equivalent. Despite major investments by taxpayers, too many schools are failing. There is a need to restructure school spending so that our schools provide the educational opportunity to our students that we expect and at a level of spending that the State and local taxpayers can sustain, while incentivizing improved performance and greater efficiency.

The 2011-12, New York State Executive Budget recommends a year-to-year reduction in School Aid of $1.5 billion, or 7.3 percent. Because education in New York is financed primarily through a combination of State and local funding, the proposed reduction in State aid represents only 2.9 percent of the total operating expenditure projected to be made by school districts statewide during the 2010-11 school year.

The proposed budget also recommends prospective changes to the Transportation Aid program to encourage cost-effective management. School Districts must by the end of 2012-13 school year either demonstrate participation in a cost-effective shared services program with another municipal entity or in the use of practices identified as efficient by the State Education Department. Non-compliance would result in graduated reductions in the percentage of costs the State would reimburse. In addition, constraints would be placed on reimbursement to ensure that the acquisition of school buses reflects cost-effective practices. Even after these reductions, School Aid will continue to represent the largest State-supported program, accounting for 29 percent of the General Funds spending.

As all New Yorkers and all levels of government are adjusting to a new fiscal reality, so must school districts. While this process will not be without hardship, many school districts have access to temporary funds including nearly $1.2 billion in undesignated reserves and unspent funds from the $607 million Federal Education Job Fund. These funds can be used to smooth the transition during this period of fiscal recalibration.

New York State has FINALLY seemed to acknowledge the economic reality of public education. Yet locally, the supporters of the “educational sacred cow” who continue to re-evaluate “no” votes –no matter if the vote was defeated by 1,000 votes or by 32 votes –still don’t get it.

Neither does the Alliance for Quality Education and the Campaign for Fiscal Equality as well as Boards of Education from across the State. They have been quoted as saying that the proposed budget cuts will undermine the state’s commitment to improving education for all New York students everywhere. They will be more upset if Senator Tom O’Mara keeps pushing the New York State Senate to act on legislation that would allow New York to join 43 other states that have/will put a cap on school and local government property tax increases. “Let’s get moving on actions to finally lift the highest local property tax burden in America,” said O’Mara. “New York’s local property tax burden has stood out as the highest in the nation for too long. Upstate property taxpayers have had enough. This property tax cap represents the key first step. New York has the highest local taxes in the nation as a percentage of personal income, 79 percent above the national average.”

The New York State School Boards Association released a statement following Cuomo’s recent address saying that a “Herculean” effort would be required by school districts to absorb Cuomo’s “whopping” funding cut without impacting student achievement.
“Now, more than ever, school boards, employee bargaining units and administrators will have to work together to manage this fiscal crisis,” said Timothy Kremer, executive director of NYSSBA. “But if cuts of this magnitude are enacted, districts will need more than creative thinking and a willingness to make even greater sacrifices. They will need significant help from state lawmakers in the form of serious reforms to state laws that drive up school district costs.”

So if property tax caps and STAR property tax exemptions are potenitally in the works, and Governor Cuomo is proposing operational budget cuts as a necessity to balance the NYS budget, why are we still considering MORE expenditures with expensive capital improvement bond issues?

In a recent Letter to the Editor to the Naples Record, a School Board President who is pushing a $46 million dollar capital project in the district stated that “the board has decided to apply capital reserve funds to offset the cost of the proposed Phase 2 capital project” and “the members of the Board of Education are your friends and neighbors.” Did this school board member read the Governor’s message and the press releases of the New York State School Board Association? Governor Cuomo wants the capital reserve funds to be used to “smooth the transition during this period of fiscal recalibration.” Where is our local school boards recognition of “whopping” funding cuts and recognition of the “fiscal crisis”? Where are the “sacrifices”? Where is the School Board’s acknowledgement of the ability of a community to fiscally sustain this “sacred cow”? The impending prospect of school district consolidations and mandate of shared services certainly would indicate a cautious approach to new capital projects and future expenditures.

As school boards and administrators return to the drawing boards, we’d like to see some empathy for the taxpayers who are already paying the highest taxes in the nation. If the “sacred cow” is indeed made up of our “friends and neighbors” we can expect economic reality to be the cornerstone of proposed school district capital projects. Smart people know that “timing in life is everything.” Ask an employee who worked in the World Trade Center in New York City who called in sick on 911. Local school board initiatives have been proposed, voted on and voted down. What part of the message did they not understand?

Interestingly, as school boards scrambled to make sense of these public mandates they have underestimated the number of taxpayers who did not support the capital project. Foolishly, they have focused on supporters who did not turn out to support their proposal. If school district website published the pictures, mailing addresses, and personal telephone numbers of Board of Education members, the message might be clearer for our “friends and neighbors”. I find publishing only email addresses of board of education members not friendly or neighborly. It certainly does not make our elected representatives approachable and accessible. If their only presence in the community is the scheduled board of education public meeting, they are hiding from most of the community. When their only interface is to hold public meetings with carefully choreographed agendas to promote their self-serving message that doesn’t take into consideration economic realities that each of us have to face every day, they are not doing their jobs and are not our “friends and neighbors”. I would even go so far to say that they are not protecting the futures of our children since the fiscal burden will only be passed along to those graduates.

For that Naples citizen who referred to the board of education in the last issue of the Naples Record as “they (who) truly have the best interests of our children in mind”, I would think that the board of education should have the best interest of our community and the taxpayers on the table also. Just as the school superintendent and school board who are “driven by statistics”, I too am driven by a statistics. When I listen to the news and read the reports, I can only logically conclude that spending more money on improved facilities of any kind does not necessarily equate to a better education. The education bureaucracy– the fat sacred cow– is now face- to- face with the economic reality of an unsustainable course.

Capital projects are not the foundation of education, educational quality is. The “bottom line” of our educational system is not the results of a standardized test, a Regents test score, athletic competition, size of the campus or how many employees we have. The real test is how well we have as a community, parents, teachers, administrators and school board members prepared our graduates for success in the real world, on a global scale, for a vocation, a community college, a university, resulting in a functioning, contributing member of society. According to the State of New York we are 40th in graduation rate and still spend more per pupil than any other state. Multi-million dollar capital bond issues for building improvements, administrative offices or student lockers are not going to make our students any better prepared for the real world and life after high school. It’s time to re-evaluate the desired results, how much we are willing to pay for those results and the fiscal realities and commitments we leave our children.

On Monday, February 28, 2011, the community is invited to a meeting of the Naples Tea Party Patriots at 7:15 PM at the Edgerton Party House in Grape Estates, 8600 Route 21, Naples, NY (NOTE NEW LOCATION) to discuss the upcoming Naples Central School bond issue vote scheduled for March. The purpose of the meeting is to educate district taxpayers on the revised capital project which was defeated in December 2010 and which is up for a re-vote in March 2011.