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.
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.