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Unfunded Is Unfair

As budget season approaches,

focus again turns to unfunded mandates

Soaring costs over which they have no control, known in academic and legislative circles as unfunded mandates, is increasingly frustrating school district officials, already working hard to hold the line against higher taxes.

Many residents are not fully aware of what unfunded mandates are, even though they have become the bane of local educators, who say such costs threaten to eat further into needed programs for special education, arts and sciences and athletics.

What’s A Mandate?

“A mandate is a law passed by the legislature that mandates that a school district must fund and include the cost of a program in their budget,” explained Jane Ryan, a member of the Massapequa School Board, a CPA and president of J.E. Ryan and Associates of Wantagh.

Technically, having a school and educating children is a mandate, as the state requires school districts to do so and the state does fund a portion of this mandate through state foundation aid. What has become an issue for school officials is what the state mandates, and more specifically, the mandates that school districts deem unreasonable or the mandates that the state does not fund.

“There are many unfunded mandates

that school districts would participate in regardless of funding, such as special education or requiring defibrillators as a safety measure,” said Massapequa Deputy Superintendent Alan Adcock. “However, in a district such as Massapequa, where high student achievement, a high graduation rate, an excellent curriculum and an outstanding teacher evaluation system have already been in place, it becomes a challenge to understand why the state chooses to pool all the districts together as if they

were on the same plane and issue blanket mandates that cost millions of dollars to implement.”

Manhasset resident Paul Baumgarten has been a strong critic of unfunded mandates imposed by the state. He is a member of the Citizens Advisory Committee on Legislative Affairs, a committee formed by the school board. He criticizes Governor Andrew Cuomo and state officials for crippling school districts with mandates that are passed on to taxpayers.

“If the mandates are so important, then the legislators should fund them, and if they’re not so important, then why are they passing the buck down to us?” he said. “The easiest thing in the world is to pass it along and have someone else pay for it”

 “These are costs over which school districts have no control,” said Lorraine Deller, executive director of the Nassau Suffolk School Boards Association. “The state has failed to deliver on its promise for significant reform.”

Calls to the New York State Education Department were not returned.

So what are the specific mandates that school officials have the most concern about?

• Climbing Pension Costs

Ed Melnyk, Superintendent of North Shore Schools, cited pensions as a huge unfunded mandate. He says that contributions to state pension systems are determined by the state, and that costs have skyrocketed over the last decade. According to Melnyk, North Shore Schools contributed an average of $87,776 per year to pensions during the years 2000-01, 2001-02 and 2002-03. For the last three school years, Melnyk says that North Shore contributed an average of $3,337,700.

“We can’t negotiate that,” said Melnyk. “That’s not even an item that can come up in collective bargaining. Do you pass that on to the taxpayers or do you trim athletics program, arts programs, [and increase] class sizes to pay for that?”

Melnyk says the issue is getting worse. This year, the rate of contribution for school districts to the teachers’ pensions system is 11.84 percent of the payroll. Next year, it is projected to be 16.25 percent, which Melnyk equates to an additional $2 million in costs for his district.

• Online Testing Required

New York is one of 22 states in The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC). This consortium is working to develop a common set of assessments in English and math for grades k through 12. The assessments must be done online. Since all students are supposed to take the assessment at the same time, schools will need a computer with Internet access for each student taking the assessment. Schools have been advised to determine how much technology they need by using the grade with the largest enrollment. For a district with 500 students in a grade, providing the required computers and bandwidth will be costly. Security measures also must prevent the students from looking up answers on the Internet.

“Not that we shouldn’t be investing monies in technology, because it is important for us to invest that way, but we have to basically put the money into technology equipment that is going to support the testing,” said Port Washington Superintendent Dr. Kathleen Mooney. “We want to be able to use the money for technology to support instruction instead.”

Schools have received a memo from New York State, suggesting that five percent of their budgets be set aside for implementation of PARCC. This has many administrators irate.

“That’s five percent of the budget when we have a two percent cap,” said Deller. “When school districts are restricted in the amount of revenues, expenditures become an even greater problem.”

• Costly New Curriculum

Schools are required to align their curriculum with the recently created New York State Learning Standards and the Core Curriculum. New curriculum means new textbooks and other costs. For school districts that have been achieving a high level of success, it becomes another costly mandate that may not improve what was already in place.

“The most recent mandates were Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR), which required that all districts revamp their teacher evaluation systems, which requires a different approach to education on all levels, and Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) on-line testing, which has not yet been implemented,” said Adcock. “It is understandable for these mandates to be imposed on districts that are not performing well, but we have been and continue to be a high-performing district, irrespective of these mandates,” he said of Massapequa.

• Paying For Teacher Evaluations

Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR) is another controversial topic. The state mandated that all districts put an evaluation system in place. As with the new curriculum, districts that already had a high graduation rate felt that was an unnecessary cost. Many districts already had an evaluation system in place, and therefore believe that implementing a new system that isn’t necessary and robs funds from other areas.

“We want to offer a high-quality education,” said Mooney. “We

want to be able to expand what we do. [However] we have to be so focused on just trying to hold on

to what we have, it becomes very difficult to do that [expand programs].”

• Burned By Wicks Law

This 1912 law requires local governments and fire and school districts to get separate specifications and bidding for plumbing, HVAC and electrical work on major projects. In Nassau, “major” is costing at least $1.5 million. Proponents say it makes public work more transparent and reduces corruption. Opponents argue that it requires multiple contracts for projects and makes construction more costly.

“That significantly drives up cost, especially if a program is long-term,” said Ryan.

 Former Governors Spitzer and Patterson had proposed modifications to the Wicks Law. According to Diller, most estimates conclude that the Wicks Law adds 20 to 30 percent to the cost of construction projects. She also said that New York is the last state to require multiple contracts. In addition, she said that scheduling construction for days when children aren’t in the building also boosts costs.

• Toll Of The Triborough Amendment

When the economy declined, many teacher unions and school districts could not agree on new contracts to replace expiring ones. Under the Triborough Amendment to the Taylor Law, the salary scales from the last year of the agreement remain in effect. While this would seem to “freeze” teacher salaries, it doesn’t.

Teacher salaries are usually based on educational credits attained and years of service. For example, in the Mineola School District, a teacher with five years of experience and a master’s degree earned $66,809 in 2006-07. The following year, this increased to $69,100. Under the Triborough Amendment, if a new contract had not been signed, the teacher would still earn $69,100. However, if the teacher worked in 2006-07, that added another year of experience to the salary computation. So even if the 2006-07 rates stayed in effect the next year, the teacher would be boosted to $71,812 (that’s the old contract’s rate for a teacher with a master’s degree and six years of experience).

In many cases, pay rises for additional years of experience and additional education credits. In other words, a frozen contract does not mean no raises for teachers.

School board members say this limits their ability to negotiate more economical contracts. Other argues, however, that many school administrators have still gotten significant raises, and therefore teachers should, too.

• Reduced Aid From Albany and Washington

Although it is not a mandate, education funds coming from Albany and Washington, D.C., is another issue that local school districts do not have control over. Many have accused the state and the federal government with shying away from the responsibility of educating children. When the state amassed a huge deficit, education funding was put on the chopping block.

According to New York State United Teachers spokesperson Carl Korn, education aid was 48.6 percent of New York State’s budget in 2002. It has dropped to 39.7 percent this year. He also says that with the proposed increase in state education aid, it’s still $300 million less than five years ago. He also said that the state has walked away from a promised increase of $7 billion in aid, promised by Spitzer as a settlement of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity Case, which ruled that New York failed to provide a sound, basic education for its students.

Joseph Dragone, Assistant Superintendent for Business of the Roslyn School District, said he has looked into education funding for Long Island Schools. According to Dragone, when measured in 1990 dollars, state education aid to Roslyn has declined by 54 percent since 1990. During the same time, Roslyn’s expenditures increased 21.2 percent in 1990 dollars.

“That to me that is the state abdicating its responsibility to educate our kids,” he said.

Barbara Horsley, Assistant Superintendent of the Farmingdale School District, is concerned about the decrease in high tax aid to Long Island school districts. High Tax Aid was created to help ease the burden of suburban districts where the property tax burden is high relative to incomes. She said that of the $50 million in high tax aid removed from this year’s budget, $37 million came from Long Island.

Dragone also blames the federal government for a lack of support. He said that when Congress passed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), 40 percent of the costs were supposed to be picked up the Federal Government. However, he estimates that only six percent of Roslyn’s costs have been covered. He also said that New York State mandates many more services than are required by federal law. Dragone said some estimates indicate that if school districts were required to provide only federally mandates services, it would save $500 million a year statewide.