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‘Take Us to Your Leader’ – Lobbying Albany to Ease Local School Taxes

Part One

Acting under the suspicion that a few hands in the New York State government pull all the strings, and under the frustration that those strings are tightening around the necks of local taxpayers, North Shore Board of Education trustees have been rallying area civic leaders, as well as other school districts and communities, in an effort to approach Albany as one broad united front with a message to those in charge: Schools will be in dire straights without serious changes at the state level.

At an exploratory meeting recently on this new effort, Board of Education President Dr. Igor Webb indicated that in this economy, many taxpayers will not accept the large tax increases that will become necessary in maintaining schools. Districts, therefore, are in a bind because local tax increases are the only way to support the New York State Education Department “mandates” that creep into local budgets. And, making matters worse, state law even hinders schools from taking certain financial actions that could help deal with these mandated costs as they are handed down.

Webb said recently that out of frustration with the tax increases that are driven by state costs and state law, he and other board members have even actually looked into “opting out of public funding” and “seceding” from the public school system. However, he said, “The short and long answer to this question was ‘no.’”

The frustration is not new and it is not only a local issue. A 2008 report to Governor David Paterson from the New York State Commission on Property Tax Relief, chaired by former county executive Thomas R. Suozzi stated: “New York State has the highest local taxes in America – 78 percent above the national average. Property taxes account for most of the local taxes levied outside of New York City, and New Yorkers pay some of the highest property taxes in the nation – especially school property taxes.”

The same report went on to say that New York State provides aid to schools at less than the national average. As the economy has worsened, that aid is going down.

Governor Paterson responded to the report by saying that one key thing to be tackled was “unfunded mandates,” including those related to schools.

In the New York State Senate, Senator Suzi Oppenheimer of Mamaroneck is the chair of the Senate Education Committee. She has since introduced what she is calling a “Mandate Relief Bill,” meant to “ease state mandates on schools” and enable school districts flexibility in sharing services “to realize significant cost savings and ease taxpayer burdens.”

This piece of legislation from Oppenheimer served as a cornerstone at the meeting that North Shore Schools hosted with David A. Little, who is the director of governmental relations at the New York State School Boards Association. The NYSSBA works to be the “statewide voice” of more than 700 boards of education and 5,000 school board members. He and Webb ran the meeting to discuss ways to lobby Albany and the issues to be tackled, which, they argued, are addressed in the bill.

“Those who have gone to Albany,” Webb told the group, “know it is a strange experience,” therefore, “we have decided to lobby as a community” and to get other schools on board.

North Shore invited local leaders like Mayor Bruce Kennedy of Sea Cliff; George Pombar, president of the Glen Head-Glenwood Landing Civic Association and BOE trustee; Charles Gilcrest; Superintendent Dr. Edward Melnick; Olivia Buatsi, assistant superintendent for business; Carolyn Genovesi, BOE vice president; Amy Beyer, BOE trustee; Frank Rudegeair of the Business Association; Elizabeth Ridge Cole and Thomas Maimone Citizens Advisory committee on Legislative Affairs and Charles Cardillo, Manhasset superintendent.

“We represent some of the best schools in the country in Nassau,” Webb told the group, “and we are confronted with costs from the state that make us look bad.” He said that people might not understand where costs are coming from and “they blame us.”

Among the advice Little offered from his years lobbying the state legislature, he said the key was gathering a broad group, which North Shore has tried to do, and then to approach local legislators in a way that convinces them to try to get through to their leaders in Albany. He said there a few key decision-makers there. It is also an accepted fact that a bill from a senator is more likely to pass if it is taken by an assemblyperson and put through the Assembly as well if it has the same exact language and points. So, it will be key to get an assemblyperson on board with Oppenheimer’s bill.

However, “most monarchies in the world have a higher turnover rate,” than the state Assembly, Little told the group. So there is an overwhelming devotion to “the status quo,” he said, driving representatives to “listen to their leadership rather than their constituents.” He added that while the state Senate, in his opinion, wants to appear to be making changes, the assembly is much harder to deal with.

At a subsequent board meeting, Trustee Amy Beyer shared that a news commentator during the state Assembly’s inauguration said that of all those legislators in the room, there were a small few controlling events. Her point being, she said, that it was time to act on Little’s recommendations to have local state reps, “take us to your leader.”

To do this, Little said it would be very important to come across as one large, united movement when addressing local state assembly and senate representatives.

“One voice is very powerful,” he said. “If you can tell them, ‘The whole community feels this way,’ it is very powerful.

“So, if we can’t lower school costs without the state legislature,” Webb asked him as the meeting progressed, “how do we do it? As the community comes together, what can we do, whom can we address?”

Little reiterated the need to be recognized as a significant body of people. And then to find something that highlights the group’s influence, like the expressed support of local Assemblywoman Michelle Schimel and State Senator Craig Johnson.

To sum up North Shore’s goals in changing state legislation, Webb explained it best to the Record Pilot, “The main costs of schooling are controlled by the state legislature. Yet the legislature has been completely unwilling to help districts by reforming rules that are enormously costly.

“Senator Oppenheirmer’s bill focuses on three major items:

“First, state law prevents us from saving through economies of scale. We cannot, for example, purchase cooperatively in a truly cost-saving manner, by purchasing, say, in cooperation with municipalities. The bill would extend the remit of BOCES to broaden our purchasing power.

“Second, we suffer from a long list of unfunded mandates as the legislature, the governor, the New York State Education Department, and the county shift costs to school districts. The bill takes a first step to limit such mandates by prohibiting mandates after the start of a school fiscal year.

“Third, school districts must contribute to the Teachers’ Retirement System, a sum determined by the state controller. These contributions are set to rise substantially and for North Shore alone next year will mean an increase of about $2.5 million. Yet, we are forbidden by law from establishing a reserve fund to budget sensibly for these contributions, being forced to find these monies annually from within the operating budget. The bill would authorize creation of reserve funds for these purposes, at the least avoiding damaging spikes in annual taxes.”

Webb said that North Shore awaits responses from other boards that have been contacted in the interest of building a lobbying front. They will probably begin with a mailing and then are looking into going to Albany in March.