Galef and Gipson attend Haldane School Board meeting
By Michael Turton
Funding for public education, or the shortage of it, was on everyone’s mind at the Tuesday, Jan. 15, meeting of the Haldane School Board, as veteran New York State Assemblywoman Sandy Galef (D) and newly elected state Sen. Terry Gipson (D) were on hand to hear people’s concerns and offer their views. The boardroom in the Mabel Merritt building was filled to capacity.
Superintendent of Schools Mark Villanti began the meeting by reviewing his oft-repeated summary of the tough financial position the Haldane Central School District finds itself in as it prepares its 2013-14 budget, emphasizing reductions in state aid during the past four years.
He underlined that as the state grappled with its own fiscal crisis, Haldane’s aid was reduced by a total of $1,659,563 while, at the same time, foundation funding from the state increased by only $9,066. “We’re not crying wolf. This is real,” Villanti said.
Cuts to programs
A series of other speakers including PTA representatives, parents and students all voiced essentially the same basic message — that Haldane has done a good job of keeping spending in check while fending off substantial cuts through such measures as the use of reserves and trimming costs in nonessential areas — but the time has come now when education programs are at risk of being cut. One after another, they asked the state representatives to help ensure that that does not happen.
Neither Galef nor Gipson offered any magical solutions.
“This is the issue I’m going to focus on,” Gipson said. “Cost is the issue here. I’m talking to all senators in Albany, looking for partners and ways to take the (financial) responsibility off the back of property owners.” Gipson favors a move to income-tax-based funding for public education, a strategy that he feels would more fairly distribute costs. Education is currently funded through property taxes.
Galef outlined the state’s financial woes that led to the cuts Haldane and other school districts are experiencing — including state deficits of as much as $10 billion in recent years. When she indicated that aid to “high needs” areas in the state was cut by 6 to 8 percent while other areas were cut by 11 percent, Villanti commented, “We were cut 20 percent by the Gap (Elimination Adjustment).” Galef responded, “No one is selecting you (Haldane) to be cut; it is formula-based.”
Galef pointed to some areas where school districts can save money. “Pension reform is significant. And new hires, over time, will save funds,” she said, referring to the increases in employee contributions (and decreases in district contributions) to pension funds.
Galef also said there are funds available to districts that “lean toward shared services and consolidation,” and singled out Sullivan County as an area where school districts have used BOCES services as a way to cut costs. She also suggested that school districts lobby Putnam County in order to receive a share of funds from a recent increase in the county sales tax.
Consolidation has often been mentioned locally by those who believe money could be saved if Haldane and Garrison School Districts merged. “It’s a tough issue,” Galef admitted, “and it (consolidation) has to come from the school boards.”
She also recognized what has long been a financial thorn in the side of school districts across the state — unfunded mandates — and was critical of a report from the New York State Commission on Education. “I thought the Commission would have addressed mandate relief. Instead they dealt with such things as longer school hours, pre-kindergarten,” she said.
Galef said that there is a movement to eliminate the unfunded mandate that districts must conduct internal audits — a task that costs Haldane approximately $10,000. Trustee Evan Schwartz pointed out that while some mandates are relatively small in cost, they add up over time and remain in place even as state funding is reduced. “Expenses slowly creep up,” he said. “(A mandate) is sometimes seen as a good idea — we shouldn’t mark our own exams — but that becomes an extra expense of $10,000 to $15,000.”
“I share your disappointment that the commission failed to address the fiscal issues,” Trustee Peter Henderson said. “The tax cap has provided tax relief, but you haven’t provided the tools for us to control costs and to stay within the cap.” He referred to the current fiscal situation as “unsustainable.”
Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposed budget is expected next week, and Galef expressed no optimism about a possible increase in aid to school districts. Even the weather seems to have worked against any hope of that. “Hurricane Sandy relief was not expected,” she said, referring to the considerable funds that the state will have to set aside to assist those affected by the mammoth storm that hit the shores of New York and New Jersey in October.
She did, however, refer to possible new tax credits which, if initiated, would benefit those who contribute to the Haldane School Foundation, which supports local education programs.
Asked by Philipstown.info if New York state has looked to any of the other 49 states for ideas on improving funding of public education, Galef said that New York now spends the most per child on education of all the states. She said that school districts in Virginia spend less per student than in New York but have produced better test results, and that Massachusetts, which also had a tax cap on education spending, still produced improved test results in math and science.
Gipson said that his staff is currently looking at other states for possible new approaches. “Think about the things our government has invested in — nothing has paid off more than education. It produces wealth,” he said, “but we’ve forgotten how to do it.”
The need for change
Towards the end of the meeting, Galef again emphasized the need for a more collective approach. “We have to look at ourselves,” she said. “We (need to consider) regional negotiations — that’s what they do in other states. There are economies of scale” to be realized in areas such as administration, she said. “I really think BOCES may be a key,” once again referring to Sullivan County as a potential model. She also suggested that a “hybrid” form of funding that includes both property taxes and income taxes may be worth investigating.
Evelyn Carr-White, a vice president with the Haldane PTA, expressed concerns that may go to the heart of what many local residents fear. “I am so worried about the education of our kids, that (cuts) will mean 28 kids in a classroom, that sports and the arts (will be cut). What is the likelihood of sweeping change?” she asked.
“I think it will take something really big to make a difference,” Gipson said, adding that in his view, switching to income-tax-based funding for education “would generate an enormous amount of money” and is more fair to property owners. “A radically different path is where I’m interested in going. I’m more interested in looking at the big things rather than (trimming) around the edges.”
Photos by M. Turton