GUFS Responds to Governor’s Message

By Michael Mell

During her remarks at the Feb. 16 Garrison School Board meeting, Superintendent Gloria Colucci responded to a recent “Message“ from Governor Cuomo  posted to his website on Feb. 16. Colucci identified significant flaws in the specific suggestions posed by the Governor. The message laments the state of education in New York State and proposes two new funds aimed at “spend[ing] smarter.” The first $250 million fund is “for competitive awards to school districts that have the greatest improvement in student performance.” The second, also budgeted at $250 million, “will reward school districts that produce the most innovative means to cut waste from the system.” Citing “only “¦ an average 2.9 percent” reduction in school spending (compared to 10 percent for other state agencies), Cuomo offers several proposals intended to allow school districts to “absorb these reductions without laying off teachers, cutting programs or harming students.” The suggestions include:

  • Using unspent reserve funds to absorb the “proposed $1.5 billion cuts [to education]”
  • Freezing wages
  • Increase school district employee health care contributions (to match those paid by other state employees)
  • Reducing salaries for school administrators earning $150,000 (in salary and benefits 

Colucci addressed the two largest money issues relative to Garrison: salaries and reserve funds. She pointed out to the board that Cuomo has not proposed any legislation to allow salary freezes. Without this legislation school districts have no mechanism to affect a “freeze.” Even if such legislation were proposed, it is unlikely it would move through Albany and become effective in time to impact current school budget planning. Unmentioned was the impact a freeze would have on teacher/district relations, which were only recently mended by the recent contract (after two years of negotiation.) The current contract expires June 30, 2012.
       Colucci described the district’s strategic development of various reserve funds intended to fund necessary expenditures without impacting the budget, as well as their specific application to cushion any increases to the tax levy. The current roll-over budget includes a $100,000 contribution from the reserve fund. She indicated that depleting reserve funds to balance this year’s budget would be unwise and a short-term solution at best. She predicted that this action, if adopted by the GUFS board, would “destabilize tax rates” for years to come. 

Governor’s patch-work approach
Cuomo’s message was not comprehensive and did not address or acknowledge the costs imposed upon school districts by unfunded mandates and decreased state aid. Colucci told the board the state will no longer support special education programs offered during the summer. As well, the state will no longer pay the costs to administer Regents exams, which will now default to the school districts. Other mandates include creation of a Response to Intervention (RTI) program designed to assist students experiencing academic difficulties; and new teacher evaluation protocols. Changes to the state assessment “cut scores” and changes to Common Core Standards will also impose additional mandated costs by increasing the number of students requiring assistance.
       The Governor’s message also ignored the time and costs that will likely be incurred by any school district wishing to apply for the $500 million in his proposed grants. Whether to apply will need to be evaluated by school districts in financial terms: will the ROI (return on investment) be worth the cost? Also ignored by Cuomo, but ever on the mind of GUFS and school boards throughout the state, is his proposed two percent property tax cap, which will, if enacted, have a drastic impact on education throughout the state. 

Budget Workshop
The Superintendent reviewed the district’s first budget workshop, which was held on Feb. 9. Predominantly an introduction to the process, the workshop identified revenue and expenses and their influence on the roll-over budget. The roll-over budget (created by taking the previous year’s budget and adding to it known financial obligations for the coming year) has resulted in a 3.48 percent year-to-year increase. Colucci stated that a line-item budget will be prepared and available for the next budget workshop; scheduled for March 9 at 7 p.m. Trustee Anita Prentice noted that the many questions posed during the budget meeting precluded the small-group discussions that are an essential aspect of the workshops. Colucci acknowledged that and responded that the small-group discussions will precede the question and answer period at the next workshop. Prentice also suggested that each questioner be only allowed one question, in turn, so that all with questions may be heard without any individual monopolizing the discussion.


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2 thoughts on “GUFS Responds to Governor’s Message

  1. I hope the Governor listens to school superintendents like Gloria Colucci who actually have to craft school budgets every year. Salary freezes will break the contract, which Governor Cuomo must know, and reserves in small districts like Garrison and Haldane are established so that unforeseen expenses may be managed without busting the budget or causing an unbearable tax hike. The Governor’s proposal will punish school districts for conservative financial planning, and I don’t think his plan includes anything to bail out school districts when they have to face huge anticipated jumps in retirement benefits (which a reserve would have helped to manage). Add to that the property tax cap—how can a district balance a budget?

    Before the Governor attempts any budget reform, he is going to have to get a handle on the unfunded mandates and other factors that drive the accelerating rises in spending, such as health care and retirement benefits. Expecting schools to manage their budgets with his proposal is, to me, myopic in the extreme.

  2. Thank you, Michael for the article and Julia for your perceptive comment. Speaking for myself as a member of the Garrison Board, I would say I don’t “discount” the Governor’s proposal, but instead am “horrified” by the Governor’s proposal – and the language in which he phrased it. In a broadcast email I received this weekend from the Governor, he describes school districts as “bloated with waste and inefficiency.” Yet all the school districts I know (including Peekskill where I work) have made staff reductions and other budget cuts for the last two years and strive all the time to do more with less. Cuomo indicts New York education for poor test scores compared to spending, while ignoring something he knows well: New York is the second most segregated state in the nation, with as well vast economic disparities between urban, suburban, and rural districts, and our state test scores vary widely according to school district wealth. School districts in well-off neighborhoods have excellent test scores; the challenge is in districts where the schools deal with the many effects of poverty and the children of new immigrants. And while Cuomo says he has asked for only a 2.9% reduction in state aid to education, the cuts in funding to Garrison, Haldane, and Peekskill are 8% or higher.

    Cuomo offers the prospect of competitive grants for school districts. He may not know that State Ed already provides competitive grant funds for which school districts compete. However, grant funds that were supposed to be distributed in October 2010 have still not been received today.

    Finally, he refers to teachers as “special interests.” Yes, teachers are people who are specially interested in children and who routinely spend their own money and time on supplies and providing extra help for their students. It is the teachers, as well as parents, who have had to adjust rapidly to changing fashions in education coming from Albany or Washington (Math A & B, Reading First) and then be held responsible for standardized test results that are universally acknowledged to be flawed measures of student learning. The “special interests” to me would seem to be those wealthy individuals and corporations who pay less than their fair share of taxes, and then complain about the quality of graduates from the public schools.

    Cuomo sounds very much like the tea party as described by E.J. Dionne in the Washington Post today (substitute New York for the United States). Dionne’s entire op-ed is worth reading; this is an extract:

    No, we are acting here as if the only real problem the United States confronts is the budget deficit; the only test of leadership is whether a president is willing to make big cuts in programs that protect the elderly; and the largest threat to our prosperity comes from public employees.

    Take another five steps back and you realize how successful the tea party has been. No matter how much liberals may poke fun at them, tea party partisans can claim victory in fundamentally altering the country’s dialogue.

    Consider all the things Washington and the media are mostly ignoring. You haven’t heard much lately on how Wall Street shenanigans tanked the economy in the first place — and in the process made a small number of people very rich. Yet any discussion of the problems caused by concentrated wealth (a vital mainstream issue in the America of Andrew Jackson and both Roosevelts) is confined to the academic or left-wing sidelines.

    You haven’t seen a lot of news stories describing the impact of long-term unemployment on people’s lives or the difficulty working-class kids are encountering if they want to go to college.

    You hear a lot about how much the government spends on the elderly, but not much about facts such as this one, courtesy of a report last fall from the Employee Benefit Research Institute: People over 75 “were more likely than other age groups — including children under 18 — to live on incomes equal to or less than 200 percent of poverty.”

    Any analysis of the economic struggles many elderly people endure would get in the way of the “greedy geezer” storyline being spun to justify big cuts in Medicare benefits and Social Security.

    Thanks to the tea party, we are now told that all our problems will be solved by cutting government programs. Thus the House Republicans foresee nirvana if we simply reduce our spending on Head Start, Pell grants for college access, teen pregnancy prevention, clean water programs, K-12 education and a host of other areas.

    Does anyone really think that cutting such programs will create jobs or help Americans get ahead? But give the tea party guys credit: They have seized the political and media agenda and made budget cutting as fashionable as Justin Bieber was five minutes ago. Last week, Lori Montgomery reported in The Washington Post that a bipartisan group of senators thinks a sensible deficit reduction package would involve lifting the Social Security retirement age to 69 and reforming taxes, purportedly to raise revenue, in a way that would cut the top income tax rate for the wealthy from 35 percent to 29 percent.

    Only a body dominated by millionaires could define “shared sacrifice” as telling nurses’ aides and coal miners they have to work until age 69 while sharply cutting tax rates on wealthy people. I see why conservative Republicans like this. I honestly don’t get why Democrats — “the party of the people,” I’ve heard — would come near such an idea.

    And Cuomo is a Democrat…