BEING RIGHT DOESN’T ALWAYS MEAN WINNING

Sometimes it hurts to be right. For months REFIT cautioned that several factors were likely to combine to suppress state education aid this year.  Among them were:

  1. Immediately following a gubernatorial election, aid is historically lowered, as new governors take advantage of the time before another election. Lower aid in past years can safely be overcome (politically) with higher aid in the next election year.  The fact that the legislature also has another year to recover local support compounds the problem.

  2. The newly elected majority in the Senate would need to hire all new staff, leaving them at a disadvantage in budget negotiations. As a result, they would likely be vulnerable to the positions of other leaders, who had seasoned staff to help advance their positions.  Despite promises of reform to the state aid formula, the new Senate leadership would need time to establish themselves and the budget process began even before they took the reins.

  3. Our state provides our governor with almost insurmountable budget making authority. This power is enhanced by the fact that he is now the undisputed leader of the political party that controls all facets of the legislative process. 

  4. Shortly after negotiations began, the state comptroller identified a spending deficit that put a damper on any potential increases.

  5. A higher than usual allowable tax levy increase, combined with a slightly lower retirement system contribution rate and existing total school reserve levels would convince budget negotiators that no immediate crisis would ensue, should they not provide a historic increase.

  6. Following the Executive Budget proposal, we suggested that the environment would allow the legislature to raise the governor’s projection by perhaps $300 million. Despite fiscal challenges, the governor would have to allow the new leadership a political “win” by increasing his aid totals.  Sadly, we were close, as the final increase was $281 million over the Executive Budget’s figures. 

Despite fervent protests from those leaders proclaiming that the new era would bring systemic reform (and the long-promised redistribution of aid according to levels of poverty, regional cost, English Language Learners and other measures of school need) Albany’s status quo won out.  State aid was distributed in exactly the same regional proportions as last year.  The only “reform” was to institute an even more convoluted ten-tiered distribution scheme akin to the Gap Elimination Adjustment repayment plan.  This allows state leaders to address local district issues that arise to the level of political imperative by carving out exceptions for what they consider to be problem districts.  This doesn’t help fiscally challenged districts as a group.

The result is a mixed bag of insufficient (but not insignificant) aid levels, combined with the helpful rejection of poor policy proposals and the enactment of long sought after and much needed change, like an increase in the BOCES District Superintendent salary cap and (finally!) district authority for the creation of a TRS reserve fund.  This pattern was true to form as well, as past leaders have also sought to mitigate lower than called for aid increases with high profile policy change; in order to salve the disappointment. 

Fiscally challenged REFIT school districts as a group received uneven aid levels.  Some got only a paltry increase that won’t begin to cover even the usual year-to-year inflationary cost increases.  To the extent possible, they will rely on fund balance to hold them until next year’s expected legislative election year increase.  Others were more fortunate.  All were the victim of state leaders’ failing once again to recognize that the usual political and economic calculations often don’t apply in our schools.  For instance, allowing an increase in the “tax cap” rate doesn’t help when your local tax base consists largely of residences, rather than commercial property.  In many instances, the increase in the tax cap for this year allowed local district tax increases to surge from “negligible” to “insignificant”.   As always, as district leaders, you are respectful of local taxpayer concerns, particularly in light of the federal limit on the State and Local Tax (SALT) deduction. As a result, you can’t simply raise local taxes to compensate for the state’s failure to provide sufficient aid.

State leaders are having a hard time understanding the crisis that remains in our fiscally challenged communities.  They look at stable state unemployment figures and high regional graduation rates and move on to areas with more visible challenges.   State leaders have so far failed to understand that it’s not enough to treat REFIT schools like every other school.  They’re simply not like every other school and students in our schools deserve an earnest attempt to overcome their life challenges and the schools’ individual economic circumstances. 

Here are state budget items with the biggest impact on REFIT schools:  

  1. Equitable Distribution within school districts: The governor’s plan to require school districts to submit equitable budget distribution plans to the state was modified in the final budget agreement.  Now, “underfunded or high need” schools within school districts with more than one building at a given level (elementary, middle, high school) will need to submit a report to SED by the first of September, showing how they plan to prioritize funding to those schools deemed to be underfunded in comparison to their counterpart(s) within the district.  SED will produce their list of designated schools by the first of May each year.  Plans to have the state pre-approve those plans were thankfully, not included in the state budget. While still an overreach by state government, this is a far cry better than the original proposal and an advocacy “win” for the educational community.

  2. Community Schools: Community Schools continue to be one of the most promising means of transforming our schools and the communities that support them.  This year the amount set aside within aid for Community Schools increased from $75,000 to $100,000 with a total increase of $50 million.  This funding remains flexible for districts and can be used for anything that maximizes academic achievement.  The increase should allow the hiring of Community Schools coordinators and other helpful local efforts.  

  3. BOCES District Superintendent Salary Cap Increase: Finally!  The ability to attract and retain educational leaders to this vital role is crucial to the success of our region’s educational effort.  Increases of 6% per year will be allowed, eventually reaching a maximum of $208,000.  This should allow BOCES to be competitive in reaching out to the field’s best and brightest and adequately compensate the good folks already serving in those positions.

  4. TRS Reserve Fund: This is another critically important change and one that some of us have worked our entire advocacy careers to obtain for our schools.  While the state Employee Retirement System (ERS) has for generations had a reserve fund to offset fluctuations in the employer contribution rate, the same could not be said for the Teachers’ Retirement System contributions.  This left school districts vulnerable to market swings; often leaving schools to face large increases just when they had the least money available.  Now, when expenses are lower at the end of the year than anticipated, funds can be set aside to protect taxpayers and employees from these large cost swings.  This should not only prevent large swings in local taxes, but help assure that district programs and services needn’t be sacrificed to adjust for increased pension costs.  Simply put, current education shouldn’t suffer to pay for future costs and now, they’ll be at lower risk of that happening.  This is a longstanding legislative priority of the educational community and REFIT is proud of have played a role in obtaining this improvement on behalf of our members.

  5. No Cost Dual Enrollment: It was always a conundrum; go to high school, but be forced to pay for coursework done jointly with local SUNY colleges and universities.  Since cost and particularly the cost of remedial coursework is a huge contributor to our college dropout rate, the ability to obtain these courses free of charge is tremendously helpful to students and their families.  Authority to offer the courses for free doesn’t necessarily mean its automatic.  Districts should coordinate with local higher ed to be sure our students can receive free courses.  This new authority is helpful in our partnerships and of great potential benefit to students.

  6. Transportation “Piggybacking”: Akin to cooperative purchasing, school districts can now join sister districts in their transportation contracts.  This should provide both administrative relief, as well as cost savings to districts.  In our ability to provide afterschool, summer, weekend and other external programming, transportation is the key and so this ability should prove highly beneficial.

  7. APPR: No more requirement to use Grade 3-8 test results, as well as other state exams as part of staff evaluations.  No more state growth model.  No more including student 3-8 test results in their permanent record.  Districts will still need to negotiate their evaluation system with local bargaining units and the student growth measure assessment still stands.  The state missed the chance to improve the already passed standalone legislation by eliminating the collective bargaining requirement that will be costly for districts, as well as arrive at an approach that didn’t potentially increase student testing by having (but not using) state tests for evaluative purposes, in addition to local tests that might be used to evaluate staff.

  8. Agency Shop Fee Indemnification: When the U.S. Supreme Court rejected agency shop fees, it opened the potential for past payers to request those fees back from school districts that collected them on behalf of unions and those unions themselves. Now the state budget sets law that prevents that from occurring.

Here are the items we’re glad they rejected: 

  1. Capping the Reimbursable Aids: Most REFIT schools would have suffered under this proposal that mirrored the old block grant concept:  “We’ll give you a set figure and if you spend more than that, take it from somewhere else in your budget.”  For now, districts will continue to receive the reimbursement promised by the state for BOCES, Transportation, Building and 8 other reimbursable aid categories.

  2. Cutting the Building Aid Adjustment: The legislature rejected the governor’s plan to reduce Building Aid reimbursement rates.  Building Aid will continue to allow incidental costs to be included in construction project reimbursement.

  3. Seat Belts on Buses: Requiring the use of seat belts on school buses would have been horribly detrimental to students and school districts alike.  Districts would have needed added staff to monitor belt use.  Students would have been exposed to concentrated impact stress in a collision, as all force would have been directed to the lap belt area -- an area that can cause spinal separation at amazingly low speed impacts. 

  4. Division of Human Rights Jurisdiction over Schools: The legislature rejected the governor’s annual bid to subject school districts to the jurisdiction of the Division of Human Rights.  School discipline remains right where it should stay; with schools who know their students and have corrective, rather than punitive discipline as their basis for action.

  5. New Curriculum Mandates: Changes to the mandated health curriculum to require instruction on relationships and comprehensive sex education were rejected by the legislature.

Here’s Where They Should Have Left Well Enough Alone: 

  1. Permanent Property Tax Cap: By now, most of us are all too aware of the secondary consequences of the property tax levy cap.  Adjustments needed to be made to avoid negative tax caps, it needed to simply be a 2% cap as advertised (rather than a much lower cap tied to the inappropriate consumer price index) and others.  That didn’t happen and we now have a permanent tax cap; as is.  The tax cap institutionalizes the inequities of our public education funding scheme.  Communities with a more significant commercial base can throw millions to their schools while those with little remaining tax base struggle to raise a pittance.  Perhaps its’ one redeeming quality is that it forces the state to attend to districts that find themselves most in need.   If only it would.

  2. Mandated Election Day Leave: Most school staff work less than half of the days in a year.  In addition, they have paid leave, negotiated and paid by the school district.  Polls are open both before and after the typical instructional day, but the state felt compelled to include schools in requiring that each employee receive three hours at the start or end of the school day to vote.  Theoretically, all school employees could elect to take leave for half of the school day that coincides with Election Day.  This truly was a solution without a problem and imposes yet another costly unfunded mandate on our schools.  At best, it should have been left to collective bargaining. 

Missed Opportunities: 

  1. State Aid: After years of promising reform of the education aid distribution system, the new Senate leadership not only failed to produce that reform, it compounded inequities through a convoluted ten-tiered approach, once again negotiated the budget in secret and failed to increase aid by the needed amount. 

  2. School Bus Stop Arms: Despite increased focus on the tragedies resulting from passing stopped school buses, the state declined to authorize the use of stop arms to prevent drivers ignoring the flashing lights and stop sign of a 60 foot long, bright yellow vehicle!

  3. Final Cost Report Forgiveness: For the governor to allow forgiveness to some school districts and not others was reprehensible, particularly when it appeared for all the world like politics was the only tangible difference between them (he allowed forgiveness of aid penalties for districts before election, vetoed them afterward). The state budget was a chance to make this right once and for all.

  4. Smart Schools Bond Act: Voters authorized $2 billion to be used for upgrading the technology capacity of our schools.  There are few issues as important to today’s schools and their students.  Yet, the panel that allegedly meets to authorize district plans rarely gets together and little of the authorized money has actually been distributed.  The budget could have required a meeting and distribution schedule.

  5. Pre-K Transportation Funding: Nothing would help address the impact of increased poverty on our students like accessible pre-k.  Transportation is the key to that accessibility and until the state allows aid on pre-k transportation, our fiscally challenged schools won’t be able to provide it to those who need it most.  Pure and simple.  State leaders know it and yet ignored this vital change.  

ONE FINAL THOUGHT:

If you spend enough time around Albany, certain signs concern you.  The prospect of one political party controlling the entire legislative and budget making process raised the prospect of either finally reforming our inequitable state aid distribution system or having the legislature follow the governor as he leads the party in charge.  Thus far, the new leadership has followed lockstep behind the governor, mirroring decades of secrecy and political considerations pervading the budgeting process.  It’s not encouraging.  Next year will bring a new U.S. Census.  That census will reflect the hundreds of thousands of New York State residents who have left our state.  That means some legislative districts will be expanded to include the same number of voters; which means that many more legislators will come from the City, where population has grown.  With the exception of the state comptroller, all of our statewide officeholders and all of our legislative house leaders already come from the City and Westchester.  Soon, their respective conferences will be stocked with even more fellow urbanites. 

In meetings with legislators and at the Joint Legislative Budget Hearing on Public Education, I raised this very concern.  I was promised time and again that they would represent ALL of public education, ALL New Yorkers, ALL students.  They failed.  They not only didn’t live up to their promises, they made things systemically worse. 

We are not alone in this shift of political power toward major metropolitan areas.  It’s happening in a number of states, where population has also shifted to the cities.  Our lack of collective action in response to being ignored may well result in irretrievable harm; harm in a lack of appropriate help, harm in the failure to consider how policies affect fiscally challenged communities, harm in the treatment of high need district students in a substandard manner, resulting in a diminished quality of life.  I once sat next to a legislator on the floor of the Assembly, as he surveyed the room full of vociferous debaters and said “Look at ‘em.  They all think this is for real.”  Well, it IS real.  The decisions of state leaders have very real consequences for the future of REFIT schools.  The fact that our new representatives came into office hell bent to change historic inequities and limped out of the state budget process with no reform whatever is disturbing.

Our job of educating is as important in the legislative realm as it is in the classroom if REFIT districts are to survive in this new era.  Local stewardship of your district is crucial, but insufficient.  Organize district advocacy teams, speak with legislators, write to leaders, make some noise on behalf of your kids’ opportunities and your way of life.  Both are disappearing rapidly.

DAVID A. LITTLE, Esq.

Chief Operating Officer 

 

A DEEPER DIVE

The Executive Budget’s Impact on REFIT Schools

NOTE:  In past years, your REFIT has tried its best to provide you with an immediate reaction to the governor’s State of the State and Executive Budget presentations. Knowing that others also provide that service, this year REFIT has waited for the dust to settle so that we can provide you with an analysis tailored specifically to Long Island’s fiscally challenged schools.  You’ll still get the categories and amounts, but you’ll also get REFIT’s advocacy position on them.  Both approaches have value.  Let us know which you prefer!

ANALYTICAL COMMENTARY

The 2019 Executive Budget is an iceberg.  Stay at the surface and you have a balanced budget that provides an education aid increase of twice the rate of inflation, education aid at one third of all state discretionary spending, an increase of nearly a billion dollars, and a new program to attract teachers to needy schools. You can add to that more funding for Community Schools, continued funding for Farm to School, 70% of new aid directed to high need districts, increases for pre-k and a whopping total of education spending reaching $70 billion; more than the entire U.S. budget for public education!  Then, as you approach the iceberg…..DANGER!  There are pitfalls below that surface!   

An aid increase of $956 million is a wonderful starting off point for budget negotiations, particularly for a post-election year when neither the governor nor legislature are running.  Historically, the year after a gubernatorial election is the year within the four-year cycle for the lowest aid increases.  So, nearly a billion in increased aid is better than you might expect, particularly when the Assembly has always sought to increase aid during negotiations and the brand new Senate majority has a tremendous incentive to quickly make good on campaign promises of fulfilling the billions owed schools under the CFE court decision.  Sadly, a lot of the Executive Budget goes downhill from there.

The governor goes to great lengths in his Budget Briefing Book to delegitimize that CFE court decision.  He says we’re past that and that the aid owed to our schools is whatever he and the legislature say it is in any given year.  He stops short of doing away with the Foundation Aid formula, as he has suggested in the past but he says it’s really just a number, not an obligation. Then he backs up the rhetoric with proposals that prove he means it, unfortunately. Let’s take a closer look:

STATE AID:  Sure $956 million is a lot of money and a grand school spending total of $70 billion would be the envy of any state.  We spend the most per child by double the national average.  Yet, that’s half of what the Board of Regents and the Educational Conference Board said schools needed next year.    Why isn’t it enough?  Simple once you break it down and as usual, it’s all about how that money is distributed and who you get the money from.  First, there are many, many districts who would only receive the governor’s recommended allocation of 0.25 percent.  Let’s read that again!  ZERO point two five percent.  He’s relying on lower ERS and TRS retirement system contributions and a higher tax cap that will allow districts to get more of their inflationary spending increases locally.  That frees the state up to pay for other things (legitimate things to be sure, like health care and infrastructure, but other things nonetheless.)  Within that near-billion dollar offering is the fact that only $338 million of that is in flexible Foundation Aid.  The reimbursable categories, like BOCES, Building, Transportation and Special Ed Aids will take up a third of the increase, grants and categorical programs that are given to specific districts take up the rest. 

DEFLECT, DISTRACT AND DELAY:  Aside from being the world’s worst name for a law firm, these are apparently the tactics employed by the Executive Budget to keep the educational community from zeroing in on the fact that years after the state’s recovery from the Great Recession, we’re still billions behind our court ordered funding of schools.  First, it deflects:  With the press, schools themselves and advocates clamoring for a legitimate increase and an equitable means of distributing state aid, the governor has chosen to deflect our attention to distribution of aid to individual schools within each school district.  He says the annual attempt to obtain more aid is a “scam”.  He says the real problem isn’t the billions owed by the state to schools, it’s the fact that school districts don’t give each individual school the same amount of money.  It’s such a bizarre premise that it’s tough to lay out.  Here it is in a nutshell.  School districts get enough money, but they choose to shortchange some of their schools by providing too much to others.  Why is this illogical?  Let me count the ways!  First, this state has hundreds of school districts with only one school at each level.  His argument doesn’t apply to them -- or shouldn’t.  Yet, he wants to expand his funding transparency requirements to nearly half of the school districts in the state.  He got his nose under the tent last year with 75 large districts and now wants to shift the argument away from how much the district is provided and instead have the state tell the district how much should be spent in each building.  Talk about loss of local control!  The State of New York, the state that couldn’t get student testing, teacher evaluation or unfunded mandates right wants to tell local school leaders what is best under their own collective roof.  Schools will be forced to submit their budget proposals for review.  They’ll have to pass state muster before they even get to the voters.  (Those same voters who are expected to shoulder the lion’s share of the cost increases under the plan.)  The Executive Budget ignores school district realities like inability to alter contractual obligations (again, because of the state’s Triborough Amendment) including  heating and cooling costs that vary between buildings, the extracurricular sports and activities that make high school more expensive to provide than elementary school by its very nature, transportation variations that can swing widely due to the location of out of district special ed programs, not to mention the fact that (especially with enrollment swings) a district can simply have more kids at the elementary, middle or high school level than at the others.  The plan may in fact have some relevance in large city school districts where resources can be distributed between several schools at the same level.  What he really appears to want to address is shorting schools in poor areas of a school district, while schools in wealthy areas within the same district get the works.  However, this plan is either wildly ignorant of how most school districts operate or it is a deliberate attempt to take focus off of the real issue of what is perennially regarded as the nation’s worst education aid distribution system. 

Then, there’s the distraction.  It’s a well-known negotiating tactic that the governor typically throws in several policy initiatives, just to force the legislature to spend time and money “buying back” cuts to programs and finding new revenue streams that would have been provided by agreeing to harmful new policies included in the state budget.  There are several in this year’s Executive Budget.  The first is…

CAPPING BOCES, SPECIAL ED, TRANSPORTATION AND BUILDING AIDS.  The governor says that capping these payments for amounts already spent by the district on the promise of reimbursement in the following year will free up money for more flexible aid.  But rather than alert districts to the prospect of that happening in the future so that they can attempt to curb spending in those areas, he makes the change now (reneging on the state’s promise to pay districts back for money already spent!)  He’s tried this before and it’s been rejected by the legislature.  Hopefully, they’ll reject it again, but not before they have to give up something else to get it.  Great tactic, poor fiscal practice (mainly because schools often have no or little control over these expenses.).  For instance, federal and state law dictate special educational services, the appropriateness of which is determined by a group outside the school district.  How does the school curb that expense?  How do they curb higher diesel prices for buses or contractor cost overruns?  But the worst impact would be on BOCES Aid.  Let me get this straight….  The state wants schools to merge and consolidate; says there are too many and it’s an administrative waste.  Wants us to share services more, in order to become more cost effective.  So why in the world would you cap the state incentive to share those services?  Feel free to sigh heavily before we go on…..

There are other distractions as well, like making the tax cap permanent.  The tax cap hasn’t been fair to school districts because its impact hasn’t matched what the public and schools were told when selling it.  2% tax cap.  For most of the years it’s been in place, the cap has been far less than 2%, and in some years it’s created an actual freeze on local spending.  Shortchanging school districts (particularly fiscally challenged districts) in their state aid and then forever capping local revenue (on an already diminished local tax base) amounts to pushing Armageddon down the road for the next state leader to deal with.  It’s not if, but when.  The governor has stated that New York’s loss of a million residents since the last census is due to retirees moving to a more favorable climate (both weather and tax).  This is a cruel joke.  We aren’t losing retirees, we’re losing employers and their employees are going with them.  We’re losing college educated kids with no local job prospects.  Those who remain shoulder an even heavier tax burden.   According to the Executive Budget, to stem this outward migration the state is expected to legalize recreational marijuana and sports betting. Apparently our public policies coincide directly with our immediate need for cash.  Rather than relieve our state of outdated and inappropriate mandates to curb costs, we’ll simply continue to pile one on top of another and pay for it with our collective vices.  Redistributing money already within our state is no way to expand the tax base.  It’s a shell game, where our kids lose every time.

Finally, there’s delay.  One way to control New York’s high educational spending is to simply not give out the promised money.  Case in Point:  The Smart Schools Bond Act. The $2 billion SSBA was approved by voters way back in 2014.  It was supposed to bring broadband access to remote areas, bridge the gap in information access between urban/suburban areas and rural ones.  Going into our fifth year after voter approval, only 20% of the money has been released.  Lengthy delays between submitted plans and state approval are the norm.   Great way to save $1.6 billion, but a poor way to keep all New York students competitive.

MODEST INCREASES:  The proposed state budget offers $10 million more for after school programming.  This could be big for financially challenged schools, but so far the program has focused almost entirely on urban programming.  The state will also pay more for helping students with the costs of AP and IB tests.  It throws in $9 million for an additional 15 Early College High School programs, but it targets only schools with low graduation rates. Master Teacher, Recovery High Schools, Refugee and Student Welcome Grants, and early ed math programs all receive very modest increases.  The Farm to School program does not receive an increase, but is at least funded at last year’s levels.

The new We Teach NY program attempts to address the teacher shortage by providing $3 million worth of stipends to prospective teachers willing to work in hard to staff schools.  The program would guarantee a job when completed.  The problem?  It only applies to prospective teachers of color, ignoring the severe problem of finding qualified teachers outside of urban areas (where the skin tone of the potential teacher rightly takes a back seat to their qualifications and abilities.)

School Aid Increases

Additional Foundation Aid - $338 million

Community Schools Set‐aside-$50 million

Reimbursement for Expense‐Based Aids - Other $317 million

Fiscal Stabilization Fund - $64 million

Expanded Prekindergarten for Three‐ and Four‐Year‐Olds - $15 million

Empire State After School Program - $10 million

Early College High Schools - $9 million

Smart Start - $6 million

Breakfast After the Bell - $5 million

Expanded Advanced Placement Access - $2.5 million

Other Education Initiatives - $2.5 million

 

Good Idea-Bad Policy:  The planned budget attempts to do the right thing by ensuring that no student goes hungry in school.  It goes about it the wrong way.  It uses the state budget to enact a law banning what it terms “lunch shaming practices” by mandating that schools provide the same lunch to all students whether they can pay for it or not.  It provides no new funding whatever to pay for this and adds new reporting requirements, like a plan to notify parents of low meal account balances, communication procedures to support their enrollment in free and reduced-price lunches and an explanation of the school’s unpaid meal policies.  In addition, if a school has 70 % of its students qualifying for free and reduced-price lunches, it would be mandated to provide breakfast during the school day.  There is a small increase in aid for schools to make the transition to providing more student meals after the bell. 

Bad Idea-Bad Policy:  Once again the Executive Budget would change summer school special ed program funding to coincide with the school’s wealth formula, providing a disincentive for schools to run these critically important programs.  Can you say “Summer Learning Loss”?  I knew that you could…    At the same time, the budget plan also provides increases well above the inflation rate to private and charter schools.  One would think the state’s priority would be making sure its most vulnerable students succeed before siphoning off funds to provide large increases to those outside of our public school districts.

There are others as well.  There’s the shopworn idea to have students sue their schools under the Human Rights Law and another forcing schools to close for elections.  There’s also putting schools in the position of seeking the removal of guns from owners if they’re believed dangerous and a student is in the house.  Schools are all for safety, but notifying the police would keep everyone in their lane of expertise and responsibility. 

No Policy at All:  Finally, there are the things the plan ignores completely, like transportation for pre-k that would support the thousands of kids who aren’t able to take advantage of this educational turbocharger…or adjusting the Regional Cost Factor to actually allow schools to purchase goods and programs and services for what they actually cost. The executive and his staff are fully aware of these vital programs.  You have to scratch your head over why they never seem to find their way into the governor’s primary legislative agenda. 

SO, WHAT’S THE DEAL?

The governor has just been re-elected for the third time.  At the end of this term, he will surpass the usual age of retirement.  New York’s Junior Senator Gillibrand is running for president, making a run by a second New York State leader unlikely.  It’s possible that we are entering a very long (four year) lame duck term by the governor.  Attempts by other three-term governors to stretch the job out an additional four years have not been successful lately, including his father’s defeat.  If that’s the case, the governor’s motivation will be to either build his lasting public legacy (that is more likely to include election reform, protection of state positions from federal infringement, gun control, etc.) than public education…or…he is using the Executive Budget to set up the newly elected Senate Majority with an easy way to appeal to voters who may be upset by supporting new laws on the items just listed above.  Let the new legislators get the credit for increasing his school aid proposal, rejecting aid caps and changes to special ed summer school. That’d go a long way to quieting the madding crowd.

Newly elected Senate majority members have just two short years to prove to voters that putting all of state government into the hands of one party is a good thing.  Harder yet will be their ability to sell areas no longer represented by a majority member in either house that they are nonetheless being well served by the new order.  The new leadership has until 2020 to solidify their majority status.  If they make it, they’re gold for the next decade, as the U.S. Census will allow the current majority in each house to redraw district lines reflecting the loss of population in upstate, rural, historically Republican areas and buoy up districts with newly increased, more Democratic population.  If they can hold on by convincing voters two years from now that they’re doing a good enough job, they’ll become as entrenched in the Senate as the Democrats in the Assembly have been for two generations.  For that to happen, they need to be perceived as the new champions of (for one thing) state education aid that keeps local taxes down, while providing needed programs and services.  You can’t get re-elected while schools slash programs and raise taxes around you.  So maybe the Executive Budget is just playing “Bad Cop” for the new Senate Majority members. 

The alternative theory is that maybe the governor truly doesn’t understand the needs of fiscally challenged school districts beyond the urban model he grew up in.  Maybe the view from the helicopter ride between Queens and Albany doesn’t provide a perspective taking into account how difficult it is to run a school district without qualified teachers, without sufficient state aid, with intrusive state policymakers.  Looking at proposals to cap aid for uncontrollable expenses, curtail funding for legally mandated programs and underfund vital initiatives, one has to wonder if the Executive Branch understands life in New York outside of the urban cultural experience, be it New York City or Albany. 

If either or both is true, the only available remedy remains the same:  Educate our state leaders about what is needed and what must be rejected in this Executive Budget.  The new Senate Majority and the governor have both pledged to be the champion for those without a political voice in state government.  Let’s hold them to it. 

DAVID A. LITTLE, Esq.

REFIT Chief Operating Officer


TOP 10

WAYS THE ELECTION WILL AFFECT

OUR STRUGGLING SCHOOLS

10. Governor Cuomo’s Third Term: Third terms for governors have historically been a mixed bag for public education generally. This next year (being the furthest away from the next election) is traditionally used to “recalibrate” state aid, providing a lower than normal amount. The governor will be faced with brand new Democratic leadership in the Senate, which will allow Cuomo and his staff to assert leadership over the budget making process (while new staff and lawmakers learn the ropes of negotiating and drafting complicated state budget bill language). In recent years, this governor has focused on urban issues. Yesterday’s election solidifies both the governor and the Democratic Party’s stronghold from the Lower Hudson Valley south; meaning that areas largely represented by minority party lawmakers in both houses of the legislature may find it difficult to have their issues gain political traction. Will the governor make a run at the presidency? His rhetorical onslaught against the current administration would suggest it, but pundits have not included him in possible contenders. If he chooses to run, he may be forced to pay more attention to the problems facing residents in high tax communities of New York in order to show he is attentive to that demographic nationally.

9. The House Turns Blue: Democrats took control of Congress’ House yesterday. For public education that means proposed funding cuts to federal education programs will be rejected, there will be increased scrutiny over the U.S. Department of Education and Secretary DeVos, as well as likely rejection of further attempts to privatize public education through voucher and charter programs. Having an opposing party in at least one house of Congress may also have an impact on issues tangential but important to public education, like immigration and health care. It may mean a more moderate approach by the administration, but to date its approach has been to use Executive Orders as its avenue, rather than actual legislation; so perhaps (other than increased oversight by Congress) the “new normal” may simply continue. As the next presidential election nears, with campaigning beginning next year, the House will be loath to provide the president with any legislative victories. Remember that Congress’ approach to the last president was to simply block everything he attempted, rather than to set its own affirmative agenda. Given that approach’s success, the Democrats may now follow suit.

8. New York State Awash in Blue Wave Too: Beginning in January, the New York State Senate will be under Democratic Party leadership for the first time in eight years. The last such shift was brief and unsuccessful, as leadership changed back with the following election. Their short stint as the Majority coincided with the onset of the Great Recession and gave us the infamous Gap Elimination Adjustment and the MTA Tax. This time, the change appears more permanent, as early counts suggest that the split could be as great as 40-23. Democratic Party victories came in the Lower Hudson Valley, Long Island and New York City. Long Island has now split the traditional “Long Island Nine” senate seats, making influence within the leading party difficult for our financially challenged districts. Republicans will find themselves in the new role of being able to criticize policy, because they will have no part in making it. They will become what Britain calls the “loyal opposition”, proposing ideas whose only hope of actual passage is being stolen by the new leadership. New Senate leadership means new senate staff; staff that at first will have difficulty learning the basics of both negotiating legislation and drafting the actual language. It will slow the state budgeting process in particular and the Assembly and governor will no doubt take control of that process. Andrea Stewart Cousins will break the “three men in a room” cycle by virtue of being the first woman in New York to lead a legislative chamber. For the first time, both legislative leaders will have an African American heritage. In a state legislature that usually has less turnover than most monarchies in the world, virtually ¼ of all senators won’t even know where to park. Look for some quick high profile bill passage (shepherded by the governor) to legitimize their new status and then a long, slow grind as they find their own path.

7. New York State Leadership is Urban: The governor is from Queens, the Assembly Speaker from the Bronx, the Senate Majority Leader from Yonkers, the attorney general is from Brooklyn. Starting to see the pattern? Economic development efforts, even with upstate senate representation prior to the election were focused primarily on urban areas (making it harder to raise local school revenue). Now, all facets of state leadership have an additional incentive to bolster the position of urban areas of the state: They were the areas responsible for electing the clean sweep of new Democratic Party state leaders. They will be the areas responsible for keeping those leaders in power and so the needs of those areas must be attended to. The political rhetoric of the new senate leaders has been supportive of more equitably distributed and increased state aid. Whether political reality butts heads against that philosophy remains to be seen, as freshmen legislators will need bolstering quickly in order to gain needed name recognition prior to the next election (only two short years away). Long Island will no longer have a cohesive contingent to demand aid (which may be distributed according to political needs of freshman legislators, rather than a community’s inability to sufficiently pay for its schools).

6. The Census is Coming, the Census is Coming! He who controls the legislature controls the legislative district-making process. Every decade the U.S. Census forces state legislatures to draw new state legislative district lines to accommodate shifts in population. The next census will have an impact on New York’s legislature in 2022, but the process of drawing those new lines will come much sooner. The Democratic Party will now likely control all phases of that process. In prior years, the Republican Senate Majority was able to negotiate its own survival. Now, with an extreme loss of population in upstate rural communities, fewer legislators will represent these areas and more legislators will represent New York City, where population has increased. Once those lines are drawn, it will be extremely difficult for Republicans to retake a majority in the senate, creating a situation much akin to the Assembly, where Republicans have had little to no say in state policy since Watergate. As a practical matter, this leaves communities with high tax school districts with two choices: Look to Washington rather than Albany for help, or follow the trend of electing Democrats who can carry their needs to the new leadership.

5. Teacher’s Increased Influence: In the past NYSUT, the statewide teachers’ union, has supported incumbents of both parties. Frustrated with Republicans in the Senate failing to adopt their approach to APPR reform and following Governor Cuomo’s lead in moving to take control of the senate for the Democrats, NYSUT was a top financial backer of the new Senate Democratic Majority. NYSUT has always had a close working relationship with the Assembly leadership and an off again-on again (some would say love-hate) relationship with the governor. The now unified statewide leaders will look to justify that support and shore up continued support leading into the next election cycle. Look for pressure to increase school funding, as well as blocking any attempts at vouchers, tuition tax credits or raising the limit on the number of charter schools. Look too for teachers to be given increased authority in local school decision making, such as APPR being locally bargained.

4. Pass the Salt: State and local taxes (SALT) are no longer fully deductible under federal law. With only the first $10,000 remaining eligible and efforts to find a “work around” being nixed by the IRS, the state’s new leadership will be confronted with a significant new (old) problem: Ticked off property taxpayers. Less than one month after paying significantly more in income taxes to the federal government, homeowners will be asked what they think of raising taxes to support local school budgets. The result may not be pretty. Lawmakers know it and to the extent the new leaders and their even newer staff can, they’ll likely attempt to offset any increase with state aid. Then again, they don’t have to run this first year and they may wait to see if there is significant political fallout over the issue prior to pumping additional aid into high tax areas. Note that those high tax areas (Long Island, the suburbs of New York City and the Lower Hudson Valley) are the exact same areas that were just responsible for creating the new Democratic leadership in the senate. Conventional wisdom would suggest that they create strong incumbencies in those areas by proving that the new representatives can “bring home the bacon” for their areas. School aid has been used for this purpose for generations and there’s no reason to think the new leaders will be above manipulating the formula to their advantage (or perhaps political survival).

3. You Can’t Tell the Players Without a Scorecard: Not only has the election created a new majority party in the senate, on an individual level all of the players will now play musical chairs for new chairmanship of committees, including the Senate Education Committee. Senate Ed Committee Chair Carl Marcellino lost his re-election bid. Sen. Shelley Mayer (Yonkers) is the current ranking minority member and a likely successor, but Majority Leader Stewart Cousins may have other ideas. Long Island’s Sen. John Brooks has a strong interest in education and may request that position. Composition of the committee may change as well, as Democrats will have more seats at the table and the leader may have specific thoughts on who should be assigned and why. Creating and renewing relationships with former minority party members will be vitally important as they assume new and unfamiliar roles. Education is what we do and we will need to do it well to recreate the relationships that have served the interests of our districts in the past.

Then there is a secondary consequence of this kind of sea change that isn’t usually considered. Former members of the majority party who will now be relegated to minority status may find the game no longer worth playing. After such a strong shift, Republicans who chaired committees or served in high positions of leadership in the senate will return to Albany to find they’ve been moved to new and much, much smaller offices. Funding for their staff will be cut dramatically. Mailings to constituents will be greatly reduced and they will no longer be leading committees, task forces or hold leadership posts. History tells us that many will simply choose to retire or not seek re-election. When those seats aren’t being held by long time incumbents with tremendous name recognition, all bets are off. Since this may well coincide with new legislative district lines, the Blue Wave may well have a ripple effect that further solidifies the new majority’s leadership position.

2. Taxes: If you listened to the Republican side of the pre-election argument, a Democratic Party takeover of the senate would lead to crippling tax increases and a significant shift in public policy to the left. Changes in policy are fairly assured, as the winners are largely from the more progressive wing of the Democratic Party. They were responsible for ousting the Democrat incumbents in 7 primary battles and won several of these races outright. The governor won’t have the Republican Majority to blame for failing to pass his agenda and he’s no stranger to legislative strong arm tactics (just ask the incumbents who lost their seats over his insistence on their voting for the Marriage Equality Act). With no apparent roadblock and his support having been instrumental in taking the senate majority, the governor’s policy agenda will take front and center stage. Will the cost of that agenda lead to higher taxes? Doubtful…At least in the short term. Newly elected Democratic Party legislators made gains in fairly fiscally conservative areas of the state, including the Island. Freshmen can ill afford to quickly move to raise taxes, even to pay for changes they’ve promised on the campaign trail. The result will be incremental change to policy, with little initial impact on taxes. Oh sure, they’ll renew the Millionaires’ Tax, but hopefully they’ve learned from past mistakes like the GEA and the MTA Tax that newfound success can be short lived if middle class voters perceive you as not just liberal, but one of the tax and spend persuasion.

1. And the Number One Impact that the election will have on public education in our region is…..It’ll Take a Village: Oliver asking for more porridge…the wet dog scratching at the door to be let in…pick your image, but our always challenged high tax communities are now facing a monumental political hurdle. The drop in political influence that accompanies the loss of block support from Long Island senators, the fact that all of the new leaders have a different life experience; then there’s the demand to address the political needs of those who got you to your new majority status and you have (as the old song says) an obstacle so high you can’t jump over it, so low you can’t crawl under it, so wide you can’t get around it. Indeed, there’s no getting around the fact that many of our high tax school districts will be on the political “outs” in every aspect of New York State government. But that doesn’t eliminate our leaders’ need to govern for the benefit of all residents, even the ones who are doing the tough work of staying put in communities devoid of tax help from business.

How will we influence them? How do we make them hear our voice in the roar that just swept them into office? The answer is in magnifying the number of voices throughout our communities. Advocates have an important role, but leaders are used to hearing from advocates. Much like the opt-out movement, politicians take notice (especially following an event as consequential as an historic turnover in the state senate) when they hear from the unexpected voter. The senior citizen on a fixed income who isn’t calling to complain about the school raising her taxes, but about the lack of state aid that’s making them do it! Their ears perk up when they get the unexpected letter from a business leader who wants to know what they’re doing about her inability to get competent staffers because the state has continued to ignore needed funding and programs in her community. We will need to incorporate social media campaigns into our advocacy. We will need to enlist the Chamber of Commerce, the volunteer fire department members, the sports boosters, the Rotary. We will need to give them a new message to carry; one that will resonate so loudly that it can’t be ignored -- even by urban centric state leaders. Make no mistake. The political and economic position of New York State’s high tax communities is perilous at best. Left unattended, it could spell the demise of a once proud and flourishing way of life.

There is a time for every season…despite the leafless trees and the encroaching darkness, it’s time to plow and plant: To make new relationships, to educate a new generation of leaders to protect this generation of learners.



REFIT Sept 2018 Analysis

HERE COME THE WINDS OF CHANGE

ARE WE ON SOLID GROUND?

They say that if someone else’s grass is greener, it’s time to water your grass.  Well, we’ve known that the grass in educational funding in New York State has been greener elsewhere for some time.  As the winds of political change sweep over us this fall, it’s time for us to water our grass.

There can be no question that change is in the wind.  Up to seven New York State Senate Democrats have lost their seats in the recent primary.  Five longtime Republican senators are retiring and other Republican districts are considered politically vulnerable.  The U.S. Census will soon be upon us, where new political lines will be drawn based on the loss of upwards of a million residents having left our non-urban communities.  While this was happening, New York City was gaining in population.  If we were to actually run our state education aid formula as designed, that would mean an even further loss in aid for our region’s schools.  (This year, New York City will receive over 50% of the “new money” contained in the aid increase.) 

Let’s assess the likely impact of a change in party leadership in the state senate.  First, the philosophy of the Democrats is “pro public education” and their platform includes plans to increase aid to address current funding inequities.  The Democrat-led Assembly has been closely allied with the state’s teachers’ unions and one would hope they’d continue that approach.  The problem comes when philosophy meets political reality.  If successful, the new Senate Democratic Majority will have elected new members from some conservative areas, where spending money for education is certainly acceptable, but increasing taxes to accomplish that goal is not.  The new senate will need to address New York City’s increasing needs, as their student enrollment is not only increasing, so is their rate of poverty.  Then, they’ll need to “take care” of their newly elected members, who may have only one term to prove to voters in more traditionally Republican districts, that they should remain in power. 

Once you’ve cut up the aid by 1/3 for the state’s traditional regional “shares”and paid off the state’s obligations for the reimbursable aid categories (BOCES, transportation, special ed and Building Aid), there isn’t much left to distribute.  Especially when you begin with a total that is likely to be less than prior years.  This coming year will be an “off year” for state elections.  Neither legislators nor the governor will have a political need to prevent local unrest resulting from the cuts to school budgets that a low aid figure would cause.  They can pin the lack of state assistance on lower retirement system contribution rates, higher than usual local tax caps and state comptroller reports of high levels of reserves being held by districts.

Here’s the problem with their analysis (or rationalization, depending on your perspective).  No less than the state comptroller himself has said that retirement system contribution rates are likely to rise shortly to compensate for the retirement fund making less money than in prior eras.  Local tax cap increases only help if you have significant local wealth to tax and reserves are great if you have them, but our fiscally challenged districts simply don’t.  If we had too much money, we wouldn’t need the aid in the first place.   Our struggling schools will likely be asked to rely on a misperception that we have resources that (while they exist within public education generally) our financially challenged districts can’t access.  We’ll need a strong, visible push to be recognized in any new discussion of state aid distribution. 

That means we may well need to make ourselves known to new state representatives.  They will need to know more than the fact that we are in dire need and why.  They will want to support investing state money where it can pay big dividends, quickly.  BINGO!  Nowhere is there a better return on investment than in educating traditionally underserved students.  Nowhere can you support an entire community in better fashion than through supporting its schools.  Nowhere is there more potential for improving the entirety of New York State’s economic future than in revitalizing our low wealth communities.  Remember, 40 years ago it was those very areas of New York that rescued New York City from its economic collapse.  Now the City is a juggernaut.  A similar state response to the lagging economy of REFIT communities can produce similar benefits.

If after November you have a new senator, meet them.  Don’t just tell them your tale of woe, but also the immense possibilities in your communities and the potential of your students.  Bring them to school and impress on them the tremendous good your programs are doing (and by implication, the consequences of failing to fund them).  In a legislative body known for the longevity of its members, we are likely to see tremendous turnover.  Other valid state interests (think elder care, roads and bridges, health care) will not be shy in getting to new senators promptly.  But we’re educators.  Who better to give our new leaders an education?   

Just as importantly, they will need to hear from those they don’t associate with our schools.  Business groups, tax packers, volunteer firefighters, local political leaders…anyone who they’d be surprised to learn supports their local school.  Let them know that we all hang together and aligning themselves with us early on is in their best interest. Now is the time to do our groundwork on behalf of our students and the communities that support them.  REFIT stands ready to help.  Don’t go it alone. 

All the best,

David A. Little, Esq.

Chief Operating Officer

PLAN TO JOIN US AT THE ANNUAL REFIT MEETING!

There is no better way to help your district than to speak with those in similar circumstances and learn their approaches to similar challenges.  Combine that with a presentation from longtime education advocates and a wonderful dinner menu and you have an evening not to be missed!  New York State PTA Executive Director Kyle McCauley Belokopitsky and REFIT Chief Operating Officer Dave Little have spent decades advocating for our kids.  Together they’ll tell us the news from Washington and Albany, as well as what we need to do about it!  On the evening of October 17th we will join together at Southward Ho Country Club in Bayshore.  Don’t miss this chance to hear the latest and improve your district!  Please email REFIT411@gmail.com to register.  Bring the whole board! 


REFIT 2018 end of session analysis

REFIT END OF SESSION ANALYSIS:

CONCRETE GREASING THE WHEELS OF PROGRESS

Gridlock.  I’ve always said that it’s one thing when leaders won’t do what you believe they need to do.  It’s quite another when they’re incapable of doing it.  The 2018 legislative session has ended with the legislature’s incapacity on full display. 

Oh, there are plenty of reasons why no major legislation (let alone public education-related legislation) was approved prior to the legislature leaving Albany last night.  There’s the 31-31 split between Republicans and Democrats in the Senate.  There’s the pending elections (when Democrats anticipate major gains as a backlash against national presidential policies).  They’re biding their time and making sure not to give the other side anything to campaign on.  There’s the governor’s challenge within his own party, leading him to back the dissolution of the Independent Democratic Caucus (that was previously relied on by the Republicans in the Senate to reach a working majority on legislation).  All of this led us to a true 31-31 split, with no one willing to cross party lines to pass anything of statewide importance.

What’s that mean for our schools?  It means we hang on with all we’ve got--for what will surely be a season of changes next January.  Five leading Republicans in the Senate are retiring.  Their seats are “in play” for the first time in decades.  No matter who takes their place, they will be first term legislators with little to any clout, rather than the long tenured leaders who chaired major committees and shepherded important legislation.   If the Democrats take control of the Senate, they will control both legislative houses and the governor’s office, a situation not known for productivity.  (You’d think it would make things easier to arrive at a shared agenda and advance it, but you’d be ignoring traditional regional loyalties, like New York City representation and the upstate/downstate divide.)

Perhaps most importantly, a shift in power would likely bring the logistical work of the legislature to an early standstill next winter, as old staff is fired and their replacements battle a steep learning curve.  Remember the last time this happened, staffers struggled to understand how to physically put the state budget together (how to cross check sections of law to make sure there were no conflicts, etc.). The result was a very unproductive session and an almost immediate shift in power back to the former (and current) status quo.  You’ll also remember it was the time that saw the start of the harmful Gap Elimination Adjustment.  Will new leadership follow through on their long promised education funding reform or will politics dictate that they play to their traditional power base, so that we get more of the same?  Time will tell. History should serve as a warning however, that they should think twice about simply continuing the direction of their predecessors, lest they quickly lose their newfound advantage.

For now, politics means the end of a session short on legislative accomplishments.  No substantive change to the Foundation Aid formula (though they did continue the trend of providing most of the aid increase to fiscally challenged districts), no impressive total aid increase (leaving districts to use what fund balance was on hand, combined with a higher than normal tax cap rate to hold on to educational programs), no way to fix the APPR fiasco, as thankfully, the legislation advanced by the two houses was dramatically different and there was no agreement.  (The Assembly wanted local school districts to negotiate individually with their unions for a new approach, taking away administrators’ authority.  Their bill might well have led to increased, rather than decreased student testing.  The Senate wanted to take away school district authority over student discipline by giving it to the Division of Human Rights, eliminate a year of tenure consideration and increase the number of charter schools.  There was no “clean” approach to the issue; only politically loaded rhetoric designed to position the parties favorably with their constituencies heading into the fall elections.)

Thankfully, the session also meant no real harm to our schools.  The usual onerous suggestions contained in the Executive Budget proposal were rejected by the legislature.  Knowing they had failed to provide an aid increase sufficient to even carry over existing programs and services in our schools, leaders were reluctant to gore public education’s ox.  No one wants to pick a fight on Election Day, no one wants local discord traced to the actions of state legislators as voters head to the polls. And if truth be told, we played into their hands by doing what we do best…managing crisis to minimize the harm to students.  At the local level, we used retirements, reserves, held off on hirings and built local support to offset the tepid state support.  By passing almost all of our local school budgets, we spared legislators an election season of angry confrontations with voters.  Having lived through the mobilization of the Opt Out Movement, it was a gift for which politicians are truly grateful.

There’s talk that they’ll return soon to deal with the expiration of New York City’s red light camera law, but little hope that a brief reconvening would result in anything of much import to our schools.  If the legislature feels comfortable going home without legislation protecting child victims, it must feel it can withstand being labelled as ineffective in improving education for them.  There is speculation that Senate Republicans may well have fallen into a trap by rejecting NYSUT’s Assembly version of APPR reform.  By rejecting that approach in favor of one that pays homage to Wall Street charter school backers and others, the Republican Majority may have given NYSUT leave to abandon its traditional support of whoever happens to be in power and shift donations and endorsements to Democrat candidates.  How long public employee unions can wield that kind of power is in question (as the U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hand down its “Janus” decision on Monday; where experts predict unions will lose their right to require dues from non- member employees).  The loss of revenue may make it harder both at the state and national level for unions to advance their agenda and to counteract recent shifts in policy. 

For now, we end the school year having successfully protected our students and our educational programs.  REFIT was in the thick of it, battling for funding to flow to our fiscally challenged districts, among many others.   For every bill we won, we helped defeat a dozen bad ones.  In the end, we held your ground.  We can’t obsess about the future, but we can plan and act.  In a time when it’s impossible to advance specific legislation, we must make ourselves well known; in preparation for the day we need to again act as one.  As Tom Rogers once said, we earn our political capital a penny at a time, so that we can spend it a dollar at a time.  In the immortal words of Bette Davis “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.”        


REFIT APPR Alert

ALBANY ALERT

LET THESE SHIPS CROSS IN THE NIGHT!

As you probably know, the State Assembly has passed a bill that would “decouple” student testing from teacher evaluations.  We’re coming off of a two year moratorium on the use of student tests in those evaluations and our state needs to determine how we will evaluate educators from now on.  The Assembly would give schools the authority to refrain from using state tests in the teacher evaluation process.  That’s great…but the way they do it is not something we would eagerly embrace.  Specifically, the evaluation process would no longer be an administrative decision by school leaders, but yet another issue needing to be collectively bargained with the teachers union.  No one wants to throw a good evaluation system into the mix of other negotiated issues within the school district.  Secondly, if a school chooses to not use state tests in its evaluation process, what will it use?  Will students be subjected to even more (and perhaps duplicative) testing?  Commissioner Elia has already said that schools with high opt out rates should use their federal funds to address low participation rates.  This obviously prevents schools from using that money for educational purposes. 

The Senate has just weighed in with its own approach to the issue and quite frankly, it’s even worse.  (S. 8992) It looks for all the world like the Senate is using this legislation to address its various political constituencies leading into the fall elections, rather than simply solve the problem at hand.  For instance, while it also allows schools to refrain from using state testing in evaluations of staff, it would take away the district’s ability to address serious student disciplinary issues and give it to the Division of Human Rights.  This is probably intended to get the governor on board, as this issue is an unsuccessful Executive Budget staple of the last several years.  Allowing the governor to win on this issue is perhaps intended to elicit his support for the rest of the bill (which is truly bad for our schools.)

The bill increases the number of charter schools in New York City and reduces the number of charters available elsewhere.  Sounds like a fair trade if taken in a vacuum, but the fact is there’s no real clamor for those charter schools and New York City will snatch up all of the new charters; siphoning off even more funding from our school districts.  It also removes the State Education Department’s requirement to regulate parochial school Yeshivas.  This is an ongoing issue for Sen. Simcha Felder, the Democrat that conferences with the Republican Majority in the Senate. So…governor’s help?  Check.  Get the Long Island Opt Out Movement off their backs before the elections?  Check.  Keep Sen. Felder in the fold?  Check.    Show the New York City hedge fund billionaire charter school supporters that they are still worthy of their support?  Check.  Show support for the teacher’s union by requiring evaluations to be bargained for?  Check.  All great campaign positioning, but poor educational planning.

If it can muster the support within its conference, the Senate will no doubt pass this bill to assure its potential supporters that they are being listened to.  That’s a big “if”, since Sen. Croci has left the chamber to serve a military tour, leaving the Majority without the votes needed to pass legislation on its own (hence the legislative nod to the pivotal Sen. Felder).  In this scenario, the best our schools can hope for is that each house passes its own version and let Albany dysfunction prevent a compromise version from being passed by both. Please call your legislators and tell them to stick to the issue at hand.  Fix APPR without creating a new bargaining monster.  Simply give districts the authority to remove state testing as a means of evaluation if they choose.  Nothing more, nothing less.  Then leave well enough alone.  No legislative hash of ancillary issues.  Our schools need to evaluate their staff without additional expense or rancor.

Call your Assembly Member today at 518-455-4100.

Call your Senator today at 518-455-2800.

Thank you for all you do on behalf of students!


April 2018 REFIT (about the state aid increase)

WHAT JUST HAPPENED TO US…AND WHY?

OK, big breath.  Exhale…..now first, let’s recognize that a state aid increase of over $850 million is nothing to sneer at, especially in a year when the state has a fiscal deficit.  In fact, public schools from any other state would be doing handstands and cartwheels over an $850 million aid increase.  But this is New York, where $850 million amounts to just over half of what we need to simply keep running our existing programs and services for kids.  So how (for yet another year) did we come out of the state budget process without providing adequate resources and without changing (or even updating) the state aid formula?

Let’s look at what we had going for us:  It’s a state legislative and governor’s election year.  Historically, that’s translated into larger aid increases, as state leaders seek to avoid running in an atmosphere of local unrest stemming from insufficient state aid.  When the governor is also on the ballot, it has magnified the effect.  This year, when the governor is being pushed by a party primary candidate who is a visible and vocal advocate for public education, one would have thought that both the legislative and executive branches would be pushing for a good increase.  Add to that the fact that state leaders had created policy leading to an expectation of a 4% increase in aid and it would be easy to presume a healthy increase this year.

Not so fast, my friends!  We had a whole lot going against us in the political tug over limited state funds this year.  There was of course, the deficit (which you don’t address by dramatically increasing one of your few discretionary spending categories; particularly one that makes up a third of your budget).  Then there was the broadly recognized fact that school districts had a record total amount of reserve funds on hand.  Having frozen other state spending (outside of health care) for years, there was an expectation that before they provided a large aid increase, schools should be forced to use those reserves.  Now, that sounds fine from a statewide perspective, were it not for the fact that a large total reserve doesn’t mean that every district has them on hand.  Far from it and REFIT schools in particular were only beginning to recover from years of cuts and underfunding. 

Into the mix, let’s throw in the fact that the dreaded 2% local property tax levy cap is actually 2% this year -- one of the first times since its inception that local districts have actually been able to go up to 2%.  Now again, this is helpful from a statewide perspective, but each district’s local situation is different, and REFIT schools in particular have very little left to tax, raise comparatively less under the cap and can ill afford to raise local taxes and exacerbate the flight out of our communities.  Nonetheless, what state leaders see in that is “they can make up the aid shortfall by taxing locally this year.”

And of course, there’s politics.  Usually, the total aid figure is driven by some factors outside of public education, like New York City and the Long Island region needing to be provided traditional shares of aid increases to support the majorities in the respective legislative houses and the mayor of New York.  Not so this year, as the governor (despite New York City experiencing student enrollment increases) is in no frame of mind to prop up his best frenemy, Mayor DiBlasio.  His tacit support of the Senate Republican Majority has apparently ended in favor of brokering a deal to reunite factions of the Senate Democrats.  Thus, no extra aid to Long Island region as a whole (that traditionally have had the political clout to demand it).  All in all, politics created an environment where it was easy to throw out an initial lowball figure and some untoward educational policy proposals (like capping reimbursable costs and shifting special ed summer school to the local taxpayer) and then allow the legislature to declare victory by rejecting those proposals and modestly increasing the final aid figure. 

So there you have it.  Use your reserves, tax your community and try to get by on half of what you need from the state.  Then, come back to us next year (when everyone has just been re-elected and has a diminished political need to provide a funding increase)!  You’d think there would be an outcry over this but so far folks, you can hear the crickets chirping in Albany.  Oh, there’s noise, but it’s not coming from public education.  There’s chatter over the upcoming special elections that have the potential to reshape the Senate.  There are whispers over ethics and the reunification of the Independent Democratic Caucus with the mainline Senate Democrats.  But public education?  Silence. 

My guess is that’s because we’re out about our business.  We’ll use what we can locally, combine it with whatever we received in state aid and pray for community support of our districts’ budgets.  If we get it (in most cases) crisis averted.  We’re doing what we should be doing; being good stewards of available resources to plan as wisely as we can for the education of our children.  Let’s understand, however, what that means to state leaders who hear nonstop from a broad array of interests each budget season.  What that means to state leaders is “we gave them half of what they claimed they HAD to have… and they went away quietly.”  It means that next year, when we’ve used whatever reserves we had on hand, when the tax cap may be lower and the retirement system contribution rate may be higher, when there’s no looming election to prod them into generosity or internal political pressure to push them beyond the norm, they will look at education aid and think they can cut back with impunity.

Sure, I understand that there are other legitimate state spending priorities; care for the elderly, fixing our decrepit infrastructure, badly needed economic development, etc.  But a child’s education doesn’t take a break.  You can’t ever truly make up for prior shortfalls.  As a group, public education tends to scream up until April 1st and then go silent until the following January.  Friends, if we do that this year, the only thing they’ll be handing us next April is our hat.  Talk to your legislators about what you couldn’t do this year, what programs were lost or failed to be reinstated.  Talk about what’s happening to your community’s economy.  Our schools are the foundation of our communities and they’re suffering from benign neglect.  Get to your legislators, get to the governor’s office and demand that they change the formula to recognize the increases in poverty in our schools, the increases in English Language Learners, the impact of transience and the opioid epidemic, the increased need for counseling and measures increasing school safety.

The 2018 budget season didn’t just end -- the 2019 budget season just began.  We’re in for the race of our lives.  Don’t give them a head start.   

Dave Little

Chief Operating Officer

REFIT


REFIT Advocacy Alert

LEGISLATURE’S ONE HOUSE BUDGET RESOLUTIONS REFLECT REFIT PRIORITIES

REFIT ANALYSIS: “As it is written, so shall it be done….” Oh, if it were only that simple! If we could wave Harry Potter’s wand and combine the best aspects of each legislative houses’ “One House Budget Resolutions”, then delete the negative aspects of each and Long Island’s fiscally challenged schools would have one heck of a year!

First, start with the Assembly’s doubling of the governor’s state aid figure to $1.5 billion and their promise to fully fund Foundation aid within three years. Mix in the rejection of the school district responsibility to provide building level spending plans (a diversion no doubt intended to distract advocates away from the insignificant amount of aid by claiming that districts don’t equitably distribute the funds anyway). Stir vigorously while adding the rejection of capping BOCES, Building and Transportation Aid and Special Ed Summer School funding…now chant “we accept increases in the BOCES DS salary cap and BOCES teacher reimbursement rate…..school lunch and more flexibility and funding for Community Schools and pre-k…..increase student mental health funding and funding for ELLs…..and rapid reimbursement to districts of charter school payments…as well as state paid mental health counselors and allowing for a variety of improvements to school safety …even providing amnesty for late Building and Transportation Aid filings…and banning unfunded state mandates…and what begins to appear is a spellbinding election year bonanza that closely mirrors REFIT’s legislative and budget priorities!

Oh sure, there are some Slitherin influences, such as increased payments to charter schools, failure to completely reject the governor’s bid to subject schools to the jurisdiction of the Division of Human Rights (instead capping payments for any lawsuits), eliminating the cap on charter schools and many others.

The secret of course, is to conjure up a potion of all of the best ideas advanced by each house, while burning off all of the harmful ones -- and do it all by March 29th, so that our fiscally challenged schools have adequate time to accurately prepare their own budgets. To reach this point, REFIT and its legion of public education advocate colleagues have worked long and hard to have our positions recognized by legislative leaders. Now comes the push to have the house advancing each of the good ideas rule the day with the governor and the other legislative chamber. And with that, friends…you can help.

Call your Assembly Member at 518-455-4100.

Call your Senator at 518-455-2800

Call Governor Cuomo’s Executive Chamber at 518-474-8390

WHETHER YOU CALL OR WHETHER YOU DON’T, MATTERS!

THE ASSEMBLY ONE HOUSE BUDGET RESOLUTION WOULD:

Provide an All Funds appropriation of $36.51 billion, an increase of $805.07 million over the Executive Budget.

Provide an overall increase to General Support for Public Schools (GSPS) of $1.5 billion or 5.9 percent over the 2017-18 School Year (SY), for a total of $27.1 billion. This reflects an increase in School Aid of $843 million over the Executive Budget, an increase in formula based aids of $1.4 billion or 5.7 percent for SY 2018-19.

Reject district school-level funding plans annually approved by the Division of the Budget and SED.

Maintain the $50 million increase to the Community Schools set-aside, but proposes to limit the set-aside within Foundation Aid to encourage the Executive to create a separate aid category for Community language directing school district use of community schools funding.

Reject the Executive proposal to cap the annual growth in Building, BOCES, and Transportation aids to two percent.

Propose raising the reimbursable salary cap for BOCES teachers in BOCES Aid and to begin reimbursing school districts for ninth graders that are participating in career and technical education in Special Services Aid, starting in SY 2019-20.

Reject the Executive freeze of reimbursable aids, costing $28 million.

Modify the $5 million Breakfast after the Bell program to give schools additional flexibility and to require charter schools to participate as well;

Increase the $250,000 grant for Mental Health Grants for Community Schools to $1.5 million, to expand funding beyond community schools and specify that funding may be used for social workers; and reject the Executive proposal to allocate $22.6 million in direct State funding to New York City Charter Schools.

$15 million in grants for school districts serving large concentrations of English Language Learners or Homeless Pupils;

$1 million to increase Bilingual Education grants, for a total of $16.5 million;

Update the BOCES Superintendent Salary Cap.

Accelerate reimbursement to school districts for supplemental charter tuition for the 2017-18 school year.

THE SENATE ONE HOUSE BUDGET RESOLUTION WOULD:

Fully fund expense-based aids at $240.4 million

Provide flexibility for Community Schools Funding

Increase school aid by $957 million or 3.8% above the 2017-2018 school year

Modify the Executive proposal to change the definition of an "educational institution" under human rights law to cover public school students by including a cap on any damages awarded under such definition.

Modify the Executive proposal to allow school districts to purchase school bus stop arm cameras, to require such cameras be reimbursable through state aid, and add language to require the money be paid to the school district when pled down. The Senate concurs with the Executive proposal to increase fines for passing a stopped school bus.

The Senate modifies the Executive proposal in order to:

Ban lunch shaming in a less onerous manner on school districts

Provide a $10 million increase in reimbursement when twenty-five percent of lunch products are purchased from NYS farmers, growers, producers, and processors

Advance language to:

Define the term "school mental health services program coordinator" to include a mental health services professional, with qualifications determined by regulation by the commissioner of education, whose role and responsibility shall be to work with students, faculty and other mental health and health care professionals to identify, report and address mental health issues of

students, faculty and administration at any public or non-public school, that could pose a risk to public safety and

Establish a mental health services program coordinator education aid program to reimburse school districts for the hiring of mental health services coordinators.

Advance Language to:

Authorize the Commissioner of the State Education Department to provide full funding for quick capacity smart sensor threat detection and security awareness.

Provide for education aid funding for school counselors, school social workers and school psychologists.

Establish a school resource officer education aid program to reimburse school districts, charter schools, non-public schools and Boards of Cooperative Educational Services for the hiring of a school resource officer.

Define the role of a school resource officer as providing improved public safety and/or security on school grounds

Authorize school resource officers to carry and possess firearms during the course of their duties if licensed to do so

Define the term School Resource Officer to include a retired police officer, retired deputy sheriff, or retired state trooper, or an active duty police officer, deputy sheriff or state trooper

Authorize school districts, charter schools, BOCES or non-public schools, to hire school resource officers, or contract with the state, a county, city, town or village for their services

The Senate advances School Safety language to:

Advance language to require that two of the four annual "Lock-Down Drills" conducted by schools be "active shooter drills", and provide that schools can request school safety improvement teams to provide recommendations on how to conduct lock down and active shooter drills

Advance language to:

Establish a new program to equip teachers and other school personnel with personal safety alarms to be used in cases of emergency

The Senate advances language to:

Modify the Executive foundation aid formula (how, we don’t yet know)

Remove the statewide cap on charter schools

Increase the reimbursement for BOCES teachers providing career and technical education to $35,000 per year

Provide flexibility on teacher certifications for implementing Part 154 regulations relating to English Language Learners

Apply prior year adjustments toward state aid recoveries

Provide amnesty for transportation aid penalties

Provide amnesty for building aid penalties

Provide mandate relief from internal audits

Accelerate state aid payments for special education students that enroll in school after the school year has begun

Ban unfunded mandates

Allow BOCES to share transportation services

Remove the limit on claims for the expense of STEM teachers in non-public schools beginning in 2019-20

Raise the cap for after 4pm busing of students from $17.1 million to $18.6 million

Provide an incentive to districts that enter into a shared superintendents program

The Senate modifies the Executive proposal to:

Require NYC schools to submit a contract for excellence

Require Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Yonkers and New York City to submit school level funding plans to the Commissioner of Education

Deny the two percent cap on expense-based aids

Deny freezing school aid claims on the November data

Deny the Executive proposal to reduce state aid for summer school students with disabilities

Modify the proposal for building aid to make such aid permanent

Modify Breakfast after the Bell to allow school districts to receive building aid to implement capital portion of the program

$250,000 for mental health grants in community schools

The Senate denies the Executive recommendation of:

$15 million increase for Expanded Pre-K for three and four year olds

$5 million for the Breakfast after the Bell Program

$10 million for school lunch reimbursement for food purchases from NYS farmers, growers, producers, and processors

Increase Foundation Aid by $717.2 million or 4 percent

Include $265 Million for Drug Prevention and Treatment, Addresses Fentanyl and Other Deadly Synthetics, Protects Children and Adults from Opioid Exposure, Strengthens Enforcement

As always, call us at 518-888-4598 with questions or suggestions!


REFIT 2018 Budget Testimony

Dear State Leaders:

For over a generation, REFIT has advocated for the needs of financially challenged school districts.  We appreciate the significant effort you’ve made to restore funding lost to the Gap Elimination Adjustment.  We know that other legitimate state priorities have been frozen to support public education.  Thank you!  Having brought our schools back from the brink, now is not the time to pull back.  In fact, your leadership is needed now, more than ever before. Consider this:

  • The Executive Budget is proposing a state education aid increase amounting to roughly half of what is needed to simply maintain existing programs and services in our schools.

  • More of our students are living in poverty. For instance, on Long Island alone, there has been a 78% increase in childhood poverty in only the last eight years.

  • More of our students are learning English as a second language and we have more unaccompanied minors and other homeless children than ever before.

HERE’S WHAT YOUR SCHOOLS NEED TO BUILD A BETTER NEW YORK STATE

  • A Foundation Aid Formula that is adequate, recognizes student poverty, the increased costs of educating English Language Learners and unaccompanied minors and increased costs in some regions of the state. The Executive Budget is not only insufficient in amount, it fails to adjust a decade old formula that now improperly assesses a school district’s financial and educational needs.  The legislature must immediately commit itself to this vital work.

  • An approach to preschool that allows all school districts to provide this game changing beginning to a child’s education. Research proves that this is the only successful way to overcome learning deficits that so many of our children bring to school.  A surprisingly small number of young students on Long Island participate in school-based preschool programs.  Schools desperately need transportation aid for preschool, to ensure that students in need have access to this life-altering program.  Similarly, transportation aid must be applied to afterschool programs to allow our schools to offset the impact of poverty on many students.

  • A rational and consistent way for school districts to maintain reserve funds. This would allow them to prevent fluctuations in local property taxes.  All other forms of local governments keep reserves far in excess of our schools.  If local governments kept to the school district limit, they would be deemed “in fiscal distress.”  At the very least, there should be a reserve fund for all school employees; to offset spikes in retirement system payments that damage educational programming and make local property taxes volatile.

HERE’S WHAT WOULD HARM OUR FINANCIALLY STRUGGLING SCHOOLS

  • Capping expense-based reimbursements for the cost of transportation, BOCES programs and Building Aid. These reimbursements are a promise made to local taxpayers by the state.  Local taxpayers have already paid for these expenses and await the state’s fulfilment of its promise to reimburse them.  Building Aid in particular results from voter approved debt that would be jeopardized (including payments to bondholders) if the reimbursement were arbitrarily changed after the fact.  Artificially capping these reimbursements would wreak havoc on school district finances and local taxes.  The result might well be the dismantling of needed programs and services to students.

  • Shifting the cost of special education summer school programs to local taxpayers. The Executive Budget calls for the deterioration or even dismantling of a vital service provided to our most vulnerable children.  Summer programming prevents the loss of learning for those children who work the hardest to make academic gains.  Cutting summer school special ed funding forces school districts to scale back on these critically important programs.  It forces schools to choose between cutting programs for the general school population or special education students.  New York State should not become noted for creating class conflict between our children.

HERE’S OUR CHALLENGE

While New York State spends a great deal on public education, it distributes that money in a horrific manner.  Stifling both local and state revenue to already financially struggling school districts prevents children from succeeding.  The long term impact of this approach will keep New York State from achieving long term economic viability.  We owe both our children and our state a better effort than what is presented in the Executive Budget.  That’s not just wishful thinking, it’s a court ordered mandate on state leaders to provide each child their constitutionally protected sound, basic education.  Fortunately, we have committed leaders willing to meet the challenge.  Thank you for engaging in that vital effort.

Respectfully submitted,

DAVID A. LITTLE, Esq.

Chief Operating Officer


REFIT 2018 Executive Budget Analysis

GOVERNOR RELEASES EXECUTIVE BUDGET PROPOSAL AMID CHALLENGES

THE ENVIRONMENT:  It’s no picnic.  As Governor Cuomo released his Executive Budget for 2018-19, he was forced to factor in several significant challenges facing our state.  First, is the $4.4 billion state deficit (which quickly declines to a much more manageable $1.7 billion if the governor simply keeps to his limit of 2% state spending outside of health care and state education aid).  That $1.7 billion deficit includes an anticipated state school aid increase of $1.1 billion.  Since state agencies have already been directed to once again freeze their spending to reach the 2% level, we can presume that state budget negotiations will actually revolve around the $1.7 billion figure.

The state’s budget is $153.1 billion this year, with state education aid amounting to over $25 billion.  Personal income tax revenues lagged behind projections by $66 million for most of the year, until last month when prepayment of taxes and increased tax rate payments by the self- employed boosted revenue in anticipation of the new federal tax code reforms.  How those revenues come in leading up to the April 1st constitutional budget deadline will largely determine whether any wiggle room exists for legislators to boost education aid beyond the governor’s initial offer. 

Unlike most states, New York pushes off most of the cost of public education to local property taxes.  That makes its property tax cap important in a school district’s overall ability to cover costs.  For the first time since 2013, the proclaimed “2% tax cap” will actually be 2% (having hovered between 0-1 and a quarter percent the past two years.)  That will allow districts to collectively raise about $400 million of the $1.9 billion increase needed to roll over the cost of existing programs and services; leaving a need for roughly $1.5 billion in new state aid. 

WHAT REFIT SCHOOLS NEED FROM THE 2018-19 STATE BUDGET:  First and foremost, we need reform of the current aid formula.  It hasn’t been updated in a decade and needs to be adjusted for the increased poverty, opioid abuse impacts and student mental health needs being experienced in our schools. 

Secondly, state leaders need to follow the governor’s directive in allocating most of the new school aid to fiscally challenged districts.  They’ve improved on this the past two years and REFIT schools have begun to rebound.  Now is no time to alter that course, given the difficulty students from fiscally challenged districts have in competing for spots in higher education and the work force. 

The Board of Regents has suggested a state aid increase of $1.6 billion.  In a healthy fiscal environment, this would certainly be reasonable, since we are only now approaching pre-Great Recession funding levels.  Combined with local increases of $400 million under the tax cap, this would cover existing costs.

The governor has a penchant for providing grant funding and calling it state aid.  Many of the programs he offers in this format are absolutely necessary.  However, targeted aid (like legislative member items) only helps a few and only for a limited time.  The grant funding revenue stream is often only available while the issue is politically “hot” and districts can’t count on it.  Since virtually all of these programs require local investment, it’s hard for districts to pony up local funds when sustained state funding is a crap shoot.

THE BUDGETING FRAMEWORK:  The 2018-19 Executive Budget fires the first salvo in State Budget Negotiations.  In “the old days” it was a starting point for discussions, with the legislative houses adding funding for their respective priorities.  That framework is becoming a memory, as increasingly the Executive Budget becomes both the beginning and end of issue deliberations.  In New York, the governor has the most powerful set of budget-making rules of any state (or the federal government for that matter!).  If the governor has proposed funding at a certain level, the legislature must find its own places to cut to pay for increases; and then get the governor to willingly agree.  If he doesn’t, it simply goes back to what he proposed.  These factors formed the financial, political and structural framework for today’s Executive Budget Proposal.   

THE 2018-19 EXECUTIVE BUDGET PLAN FOR REFIT SCHOOLS

Bottom line?  A school aid increase of $769 million, (as stated by the governor in his address) or $961 million (as stated in his budget Briefing Book) with 70% of the increase going to fiscally challenged school districts.  This is a 3% increase in state aid (down from the average of 5-6% of the past 5 years).  It is a decrease of about $350 million from the state’s own long range spending plan.  Saying “This is a very fragile time for New York State’s economy,” the governor proposes increasing Community School funding by $50 million - a plus for fiscally challenged schools (provided we take advantage of the program).  He offers a $15 million increase for pre-k programs and $10 million for afterschool programming.  He also proposes a $26 million increase for OASIS substance abuse services.  He does these things with a $1 billion increase in revenue, largely by taxing the corporate “windfall” from federal tax reform and initiating an across the board internet sales tax. 

It is clear that the governor’s focus is on changing our state’s tax approach to counter the impact of new federal laws:  (A wage tax on employers rather than a personal income tax, “donations” to education that are deductible, rather than property taxes, etc.)  He promises complications - a promise that he can assuredly deliver upon.

Note:  There is a fairly significant discrepancy between the governor’s actual speech and the press release and briefing book that accompany the speech.  The speech referred to an increase of $769 million in total and an overall 3% increase.  The press release points to an increase of $1.1 billion, an increase of 4.4% with an increase of $700 million in Foundation Aid alone. The Briefing Book lists a third number of $961 million.   

Division of the Budget Briefing Book Education Aid Increase
Category of Increase
Change (millions)
Additional Foundation Aid $428
$50 Million Community Schools Set-aside
Reimbursement for Expense-Based Aids / Other $333
Fiscal Stabilization Fund $150
Empire State After-School Program $35
Expanded Prekindergarten for Three- and Four-Year-Olds $5
Early College High Schools $5
Other Education Initiatives $5
School Aid Growth Cap $961
Charter School Tuition Reimbursement $22
Smart Schools Debt Service $17
Total Education Aid $1 billion

Community School Funding:  School districts will be able to apply Community Schools funds to a wide range of community schools activities, including hiring community school coordinators, providing before-and-after-school mentoring services, offering summer learning activities, and providing health and dental care services.

After School Programs:  The FY 2018 Executive Budget increases the State’s after-school investment to $100 million through $35 million in new funding for public after-school programs in the State’s 16 Empire State Poverty Reduction Initiative (ESPRI) communities. This new funding will create an additional 22,000 spots for students in after-school programs, increasing the number of spots in ESPRI school districts by 36 percent. With these new investments, 80,000 students in ESPRI school districts will receive after-school care in the 2017-18 school year.

Prekindergarten:  The Executive Budget includes an additional $5 million investment in prekindergarten to expand half-day and full-day prekindergarten for three- and four-year-old children in high-need school districts. Preference for these funds will be given to the few remaining high-need school districts currently without a prekindergarten program.

State Education Department Inspector General. Each governor attempts new ways to gain control over the State Education Department (the only department constitutionally outside the Executive Department).  The Executive Budget establishes a new, independent Inspector General to oversee and investigate allegations of corruption, fraud, criminal activity, conflicts of interest, or abuse, by any person within the State Education Department. Unlike other State agencies, the State Education Department is not currently overseen by any investigative entity. This Inspector General would be appointed by mutual agreement between the Senate and Assembly.  This was proposed last year, but was rejected by the legislature. 

Other Executive Budget Proposals:

Advanced Placement Test Assistance. New York State has one of the highest rates of participation in national Advanced Placement (AP) exams in the country. Unfortunately, Advanced Placement exams can be costly—approximately $93 per exam. While partial subsidies exist, the remaining cost can still be a burden for low-income families. Because of this, the FY 2018 Executive Budget provides $2 million to fund AP exam costs for 68,000 low income students. This funding will provide further access to advanced coursework for low income students, and will promote educational equity across the State.

Extend Mayoral Control of New York City Schools. The existing governance structure for New York City schools would be extended for an additional three years, until June 30, 2020.

Master Teachers Program. Building on the Master Teacher Program which has already awarded more than 800 teachers, the Executive Budget would provide $2 million to fund an additional cohort of 115 master teachers—specifically teachers in computer science. Each master teacher is awarded $15,000 per year for four years ($60,000 total). Those selected as master teachers will pledge to engage in peer mentoring, participate in and lead professional development activities, work closely with pre-service and early career teachers to foster a supportive environment for the next generation of STEM teachers, and ensure the most innovative teacher practices in STEM are shared across all grades and regions.

Empire State Excellence in Teaching Awards. To recognize and honor excellence and innovation in the classroom, the Executive Budget provides $400,000 to fund a second round of Empire State Excellence in Teaching awards. This funding will be awarded on a regional basis and will recognize at least 60 teachers. Awardees receive $5,000 to use for professional development activities, including coursework to enhance expertise, attendance at a state or national education conference, or enrollment in a summer institute or certification program.

Prevent Cyberbullying Initiative. The Executive Budget proposal invests $300,000 to combat and prevent cyberbullying and other forms of online harassment. Funds will be used to provide a wide array of school-based cyberbullying prevention strategies, including cyberbullying professional development for school counselors and school-based public awareness campaigns.

ANALYSIS:  IMPACT ON REFIT SCHOOLS

The numbers come up short for public education; below the state’s own long range planning figure of $1.1 billion.  That decrease reportedly helps the state cut its $1.7 billion deficit.  Within what’s left, the state continues to provide 70% of the remaining increase to fiscally challenged districts, an obvious beneficial focus on REFIT schools.  There are comparatively small increases to recently enacted, helpful educational programs like Community Schools and After School Programming. 

Thankfully perhaps, there are few policy initiatives in the Executive Budget.  This governor is known for attempting to make sweeping legislative changes in the State Budget - last year almost eliminating the need for the remainder of the legislative session (in his estimation).  This year the governor includes only a renewal of mayoral control for New York City schools and a now time worn plan to create a State Inspector General to oversee the State Department of Education.  No broad based policy changes for public education.  This will allow the legislature to focus on “buying back” aid increases without giving in to poor policy proposals.

True to historical form however, the Executive Budget fails to provide much needed reform in funding or in structure.  No Foundation Aid changes to address increased student poverty or English Language Learners, no focus on student mental health, no significant opioid fight, no Mandate Relief, no regional cost reform or funds to help with unaccompanied immigrant minors.  Economic development plans stay the same.  Clearly the governor is reeling from the impact of the federal tax reform on New York State’s economy, which he says is in danger of further outward “tax migration” of businesses and a claimed 25% increase in the individual tax burden.

In sum, this is an expected attempt to continue the status quo while addressing a fragile economy and federal tax challenges.  It could of course, have been much worse, as the state has few areas where it spends enough on a discretionary basis to help fill a large deficit.  All reimbursable spending is paid in this proposal, meaning that BOCES, Building, Transportation and Special Education Aids will be paid in full.  It also means though that things like needed change to the reimbursement rate for BOCES teachers would once again fail to be included. 

Assuming the actual aid figure is the $769 referred to by the governor himself, combined with the potential of raising $400 million under the property tax cap, schools get a total increase of $1.169 billion this year.  That translates to a cut in existing programs and services of roughly half a billion dollars.  Clearly the governor wanted to find a middle ground so as not to incense the public or alienate legislative colleagues in an election year, but also felt compelled to trim back even his own long range fiscal plan for education to address the deficit.  If there is any good news in this plan, it is that the amount withheld is within the reach of the legislature to reinstate.  Even if they were to add $250 million to the plan, provided it in Foundation Aid and directed it to fiscally challenged school districts, educational progress In New York State might well continue.

Time to Act:  In this fiscal environment, it is possible to “win or lose” while staying within the bounds of fiscal reality.  There is an old saying that when hikers are facing a bear, you don’t have to outrun the bear…you only have to outrun the other hiker.  Here, we only have to outrun the other state spending areas, like health care, state infrastructure, etc. 

As they say, the game’s afoot folks.  Look at your school aid runs, then immediately call legislators!  They need to hear a loud and immediate reaction to the decreased funding.  It took years to make up for the GEA.  Lower funding doesn’t just delay progress, it puts us in decline.  Legislators (in this election year) will be inclined to avoid local anger over school program cuts.  Many of the most hotly contested and politically important legislative races are in REFIT areas.  On behalf of your students, Go Get ‘Em!


REFIT STATE OF THE STATE ANALYSIS:  UPDATE

In addition to the Advocacy Alert provided earlier, the governor’s “policy book” that accompanies his State of the State Message contained proposals for public education unmentioned in the address itself.  The address contained almost no mention of public education, beyond indicating that more state aid should flow to financially challenged school districts.  The extensive policy paper (more than 400 pages) merely indicates an intent to “expand access to quality educational programming.”

Not mentioned in the speech (but included in the policy book) were several proposals with the potential to help REFIT schools.  The degree to which they would help is in question however, given that they are all grant programs that by definition are limited to only certain districts (and they are generally of modest amounts.)  That said, the governor has offered the following program and policy changes for public education in the coming year:

  1. Using the Community School model, an additional $250,000 in student mental health support would be provided. Any funding obtained could also be used to combat violence and curtail bullying.  Given the small pool, additional work in this area is likely to be limited and would come with questions of sustainability.

  2. $1 million is being proposed to support additional Master Teachers in high need districts. The funding would be used to enhance salaries, encouraging the recruitment and retention of Master Teachers in these districts.

  3. The governor suggests continuing the existing Mentoring Program.

  4. An additional $10 million in grant funding would be provided to support after school programming with a focus on high risk areas and student homelessness.

  5. The Early College High School initiative would receive a $9 million boost under the governor’s plan.

  6. The 2018 State of the State includes a new Smart Start program to bring computer science to grades K-8 in high need districts.

  7. $2 million is included to offset the student cost of taking the Advanced Placement (AP) examination. This program is targeted to financially challenged schools, as is an additional $500,000 for districts needing help initiating AP courses.

  8. The governor also proposed increasing fines for those who pass a stopped school bus.

REFIT REACTION

At this stage, the governor has only offered ideas on new initiatives in our schools.  The funding behind the programs is minimal and there is no indication if other areas might be cut to pay for the programs.  The governor is continuing his penchant for grant programs, rather than formulaic funding.  Unfortunately, this severely limits the ability of fiscally strapped districts to participate; even for programs aimed specifically at high need school districts (as these districts don’t have the staff or the data-keeping capacity to successfully compete for the funding.)  As always, State of the State proposals must await the presentation of the Executive Budget for schools to determine the impact on both their academic programming and their finances.  The age old question of whether the new programs would “supplement or supplant” existing programs and funding lurks in upcoming state budget negotiations.  Will these new programs be offered in an environment of a healthy Operating (Foundation) Aid increase or an across the board cut to education funding?  The only thing not in doubt at this point is that this is a year when advocacy will be of paramount importance. 


THE 2018 STATE OF THE STATE: WHAT IT MEANS FOR REFIT SCHOOLS

As the 2018 legislative session opens and Governor Cuomo offers his State of the State Message, the fiscal atmosphere for REFIT schools is likely to be challenging.  The state faces a well-publicized deficit and the federal administration has proposed cuts that would have implications for state spending.  The Board of Regents and the Educational Conference Board have both indicated a need for roughly a billion and a half in additional state aid to keep schools on track academically.  Meeting these demands simultaneously will require artful state budgeting, particularly given that recent state budgets have frozen other state spending to provide healthier increases to public education.  REFIT will be at the forefront of advocacy efforts to prioritize state spending on our fiscally challenged school districts.

This year’s State of the State Message omits major public education policy changes:  Gone are the days of calling for new teacher evaluations and picking rhetorical fights with our schools.  What remains is likely to be an intense debate over the level of school funding; both the total amount of any increase (or God forbid, funding cuts) and within the total, who and what is prioritized.   

FROM THE GOVERNOR’S LIST OF “STATE OF THE STATE” PROPOSALS

PLANS AFFECTING OUR REFIT SCHOOLS

The descriptions provided are quoted from the governor’s office.

Ban Lunch Shaming Statewide

“The Governor will propose a law that when passed, would immediately end the practice of lunch shaming of any kind. First, it will prohibit any public act to humiliate a student who cannot afford lunch. Second, it will ban alternative lunches and require students to receive the same lunch as others starting in the 2018-19 school year.”  

Require Breakfast "After the Bell"

“In order to allow students to have breakfast and to prevent them from going hungry during morning classes, Governor Cuomo will propose requiring schools with more than 70 percent of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch to provide breakfast after the school day has begun for the next school year. In successful breakfast after the bell programs, schools can either serve breakfast in the classroom, or offer nutritious vending machines options to ensure that students have access to breakfast as they start their day. In the city of Newburgh, where Breakfast After the Bell was implemented during the 2015-16 school year, schools have seen their breakfast participation rates increase by more than 100 percent.

To ease the transition, the state will provide technical assistance and capital funds for equipment such as coolers and vending machines to support breakfast after the bell. An estimated $7 million in capital funds will support expanded breakfast for 1,400 schools.”

Expand the Farm to School Program

“New York will double the state's investment in the Farm to School program to support the use of healthy, local, New York foods in school districts across the state. The Farm to School program was created to connect schools with local farmers and offers technical assistance and capacity in the school to source products locally to help schools provide students with nutritious meals from food produced by local farms. Previous rounds of funding for this program have increased access to healthy, farm-fresh food for 324,000 students. This funding can be used for capital costs to support transporting and storing locally produced food, and to hire farm-to-school coordinators and trainings for crops and food preparation.

Governor Cuomo proposes doubling the state's investment to add $750,000 for a total of $1.5 million in Farm to School projects. If passed, the program would serve an estimated total of 18 projects and 328,000 additional students, bringing the estimated total number of students served to 652,000.”

Increase the Use of Farm-Fresh, Locally Grown Foods at School

“To incentivize school districts to use more local farm-fresh products, Governor Cuomo will propose an increase in the reimbursement schools receive for lunches from the current 5.9 cents per meal to 25 cents per meal for any district that purchases at least 30 percent ingredients from New York farms. This is a win-win for students as well as New York's local farms. “

REFIT ANALYSIS

WHAT THE PROPOSALS MEAN FOR OUR REFIT SCHOOLS

Funding, funding, funding.  This year, our advocacy will by necessity focus on retaining recent gains in funding for our fiscally challenged schools.  But the purpose of the State of the State is to lay out policy, not finances.  Fiscal plans will come shortly when the governor presents his Executive Budget proposal.  Here’s what we think of the new policies offered by the governor.

Like most legislative proposals, the governor’s student nutrition plans are a mix of helpful funding increases and unfunded mandates.  While no one would criticize banning the practice of shaming children who cannot afford to pay for their lunch, the governor’s plan doesn’t explain how schools are to pay to provide high quality lunches to all students without any increase in state reimbursement.  His plan to require schools with a student FRPL rate of 70% to offer breakfast after the start of the school day makes no mention of the resulting impact on academic scheduling.  Yet, in another part of his plan to improve student hunger issues, the governor proposes paying much more to schools that use locally grown food for at least 30% of their total food consumption.  That plan certainly has the potential to improve school finances, student hunger and local agricultural marketing.  Similarly, doubling the Farm to School Program to allow more schools to participate can only have a positive impact on those schools that are included.

REFIT is helping to lead New York Grown Foods for New York Kids, a coalition of nearly 70 public health, school, farm, anti-hunger and environmental organizations.  REFIT applauds Governor Cuomo’s ‘No Student Goes Hungry’ proposal in the 2018 State of the State. The proposal would double the size of the state’s Farm to School grants program while offering the largest state incentive in the country to help schools purchase healthy food grown on local farms.

Thus, it would provide economic opportunities for regional farmers and job growth in communities while improving the health of the 1.7 million kids eating meals in K-12 schools across New York.  According to a recent report by American Farmland Trust and New York Academy of Medicine, if institutions, such as K-12 schools, receiving state funds to buy food spent at least 25% of their food dollars on food grown in New York, it could add another $200 million to the state’s economy while positively impacting the health of 6.6 million New Yorkers.

As advocates for our students, we obviously want a healthy nutritional and emotional environment in our schools.  We’re eager to support the programs suggested above, but will need guidance in how we might fully participate without impeding existing academic programs.  Since in New York we tend to layer new ideas on top of existing requirements (rather than replace outdated mandates with better ones) we’ll need our state leaders to remember that there’s only so much time in the day and so much money in the budget.  Our schools are masters at making the most out of existing resources, but help is always appreciated! 

These proposals will affect many of our schools to some degree, but the State Budget will significantly affect all of our schools.  We appreciate the ideas and the recognition that issues of hunger and poverty weigh on our children.  These proposals may help.  The proof of whether the state is committed to helping, however, will be in the level of state aid provided and in whether that aid helps or hurts our state’s most financially challenged school districts. 


REFIT Annual Meeting 2017

The 2017 REFIT Annual Meeting was held at The Coral House in Baldwin on Sept. 19, 2017. Members from 18 districts were in attendance. The slate of officers for the board of directors was approved, including President Steve Geller. The guest speaker was the Executive Director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents, Dr. Charles Dedrick.



REFIT TESTIMONY BEFORE THE JOINT LEGISLATIVE BUDGET HEARING ON ELEMENTARY AND SECONDARY EDUCATION FEBRUARY 14, 2017

Dear State Leaders:

For over a generation, REFIT has advocated for the needs of financially challenged school districts. We appreciate the significant effort you’ve made to restore funding lost to the Gap Elimination Adjustment. We know that other legitimate state priorities have been frozen to support public education. Thank you! Having brought our schools back from the brink, now is not the time to pull back. In fact, your leadership is needed now, more than ever before. Consider this:

・ The Executive Budget is proposing a state education aid increase amounting to roughly half of what is needed to simply maintain existing programs and services in our schools.

・ More of our students are living in poverty. For instance, on Long Island alone, there has been a 78% increase in childhood poverty in only the last eight years.

・ More of our students are learning English as a second language and we have more unaccompanied minors and other homeless children than ever before.

・ The so called 2% local property tax levy cap has succeeded in dramatically slowing the increase in local tax rates, but it has not come with the kind of either mandate relief or state aid that would allow our schools to succeed. Our current approach is unsustainable and the only way schools are currently allowed to adjust to financial stress is to jettison critically needed programs and services to students. Our schools need the flexibility to spend their funds according to student need, not state mandates.

HERE’S WHAT YOUR SCHOOLS NEED TO BUILD A BETTER NEW YORK STATE

・ A Foundation Aid Formula that is adequate, recognizes student poverty, the increased costs of educating English Language Learners and unaccompanied minors and increased costs in some regions of the state.

・ An approach to preschool that allows all school districts to provide this game changing beginning to a child’s education. Research proves that this is the only successful way to overcome learning deficits that so many of our children bring to school.

・ A rational and consistent way for school districts to maintain reserve funds. This would allow them to prevent fluctuations in local property taxes. All other forms of local governments keep reserves far in excess of our schools. If local governments kept to the school district limit, they would be deemed “in fiscal distress.” At the very least, there should be a reserve fund for all school employees; to offset spikes in retirement system payments that damage educational programming.

・ Common sense revisions to the property tax cap. The 2% cap should be just that: 2%. Consumer inflation bears no relationship to school expenses. Consumers buy food and gas and cars at minimal annual increases. Schools buy double digit employee health care insurance and near double digit state retirement system contributions. At the least, last year’s direction to change the cap to account for PILOT payments and BOCES projects should be codified (since the Division of the Budget has seen fit to ignore your direction.)

HERE’S WHAT WOULD HARM OUR FINANCIALLY STRUGGLING SCHOOLS

・ The proposal to grant the governor unilateral budget reducing authority. History shows that midyear cuts to school aid are incredibly disruptive and damaging to a child’s education. If and when catastrophic reductions in federal aid to New York State were to materialize, it is the shared responsibility of the executive and legislative branches to determine how best to respond.

・ Repealing the Foundation Aid formula. Simply negotiating state aid according to whatever future leaders might deem fit is a dramatic step backward in the equitable and sufficient funding of our state’s public schools. Further, the role of the legislature is undermined in this process. Any semblance of transparency or predictability would be lost and a traditionally inequitable method of distribution would be institutionalized. Our financially challenged school districts require an equitable, adequate, predictable and transparent method of providing aid. Codifying past inequities and shortchanging students is no way to serve our children and build a sound future for New York State.

・ Removing authority to protect students from schools. Currently students are protected under the Dignity for All Students Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, IDEA and the federal Office of Civil Rights. Nonetheless, the Executive Budget seeks to strip authority for dealing with civil rights violations among students from schools and give it to the state’s Division of Human Rights. This proposal adds little to student protection and further inserts the Executive into educational issues, in contravention of state constitutional intent. The proposal would also subject schools (and thus, taxpayers) to additional monetary damages as DHR has a regulatory approach of assessing damages, rather than rectifying violations, keeping the needs of all children at the forefront.


HERE’S OUR CHALLENGE

While New York State spends a great deal on public education, it distributes that money in a horrific manner. Stifling both local and state revenue to already financially struggling school districts prevents children from succeeding. The long term impact of this approach will keep New York State from achieving long term economic viability. We owe both our children and our state a better effort than what is presented in the Executive Budget. That’s not just wishful thinking, it’s a court ordered mandate on state leaders to provide each child their constitutionally protected sound, basic education. Fortunately, we have committed leaders willing to meet the challenge. Thank you for engaging in that vital effort.

Respectfully submitted,

DAVID A. LITTLE, Esq.

Chief Operating Officer


Albany Alert! Call to Action

Friends,

With the 2016 New York State Legislative Session winding down, several issues require our immediate advocacy. Please forward this message to all administrators and board of education members:

1. The first rule of obtaining equitable state aid is that you have to receive state aid! Currently, any district that does not submit an APPR plan to evaluate staff by the end of this month, or that does not have their plan approved by September will not receive their state aid. While everyone believes in staff accountability, many districts are reporting difficulty obtaining local bargaining unit “sign off” on their plans. Some are reporting that their plans are ready for submittal but their unions are demanding concessions outside of the APPR plan. Losing state aid (and the programs, services and staff that it pays for) would be a tragic price to pay for untimely compliance with this last vestige of state directives in this arena; particularly in light of this year’s local property tax freeze.

Last week’s legislative and State Education Department meetings revealed that since the linking of the plans to state aid originated with the governor, there appears to be little support there for delaying or eliminating the potential penalty. Nonetheless, legislation to help has been drafted and submitted in the Assembly. It must pass if our schools are to be freed from the threat of either losing aid or “giving away the store” to obtain union sign off on the APPR plans.

Please call your legislators and ask them to support Assembly Bill 10569, by Assembly Education Committee Chair Cathy Nolan!

2. The Senate has introduced legislation to divert state funds that are critically needed by our low wealth districts to private and parochial schools, instead. We’ve been here before, folks. This proposal has been defeated multiple times, but the Senate is forced to once again propose this measure to gain financial support for their fall election campaigns from charter and private school supporters. The funds provided to these schools would siphon off state aid to our low wealth districts.

Let’s face it, in any reconfiguration of state aid, no one is in favor of taking funds from other districts. This makes the availability of state revenue for public education all the more vital. Senate Bill 8135 is an abomination in a year when most state aid was provided to high wealth school districts (in order to eliminate the GEA.)

Please call your legislators and ask them to oppose Senate Bill 8135!
To contact your Senator, call 518-455-2800 and ask to be connected to your Senator's office.

To reach Members of the Assembly, call 518-455-4100 and ask to be connected to their office.

After today, there are only 2 legislative days left in this year’s legislative session. Please call today and tell them the consequences of your school losing its aid or having funds diverted from desperately needed state aid to fund private and parochial schools!


R.E.F.I.T. Consortium of School Districts For An Equitable Distribution of State Aid

Dear State Leader:

To say that public education has been through a lot recently is a dramatic understatement. With changes to testing and accountability, as well as a rethinking of our approach to higher learning standards, our schools are being asked to adjust to an ever changing array of fundamental new directives. Complicating their task is the inability of many of our school districts to muster the financial resources to make the required changes, while providing high quality educational programs and services.

This year their situation was exacerbated by the inability to raise local revenue. We certainly recognize that continuing to tax already overburdened local taxpayers is not the long term solution to educational funding woes. There is only one such solution and that is the creation of a state aid funding formula that accurately assesses the ability of a local community to contribute to the education of its children and then directs the state to provide the amount that bridges the gap between that amount and what is required to uphold the state’s constitutional mandate to provide every child a sound, basic education.

The State of New York is now in sound financial condition. It provided a healthy state aid increase to our schools this year. Yet, its method of aid distribution remains one of the worst in the nation. This results in the inability of the state to address the funding crisis that exists in many of our communities. When a locale is unable to raise sufficient local revenue to meet its educational needs, the state has not come to its aid. Quite the contrary.

This year, in order to meet the traditional “shares” distribution goal, while also eliminating the GEA, our neediest neighbors were the ones left wanting. With comparatively little state aid and no ability even to raise local revenue, our most hard pressed districts found themselves in the worst financial condition (far worse than their wealthier neighbors who received significant aid due to GEA elimination).

The time to create a functional and equitable state education aid formula is at hand. Now that the GEA is a past chapter of our history, we must create a real formula; one that maintains aid to all districts, but that addresses the serious need to increase educational opportunities in our challenged school districts. No less than the future of our great state rests on this effort. With court determinations in the wings, the GEA behind us and financial resources available, there is no reason that the State of New York cannot rise to the challenge of meeting its constitutional imperative.

As we move past this year’s legislative session, please make this vital requirement your top priority. If R.E.F.I.T. or its member school districts can assist you in this critically important effort, please do not hesitate to call on us.

Very truly yours,
David Allan Little, Esq.
Chief Operating Officer


R.E.F.I.T. / Statewide School Finance Consortium / Mid-Hudson School Study Council Joint Breakfast - October 29, 2016

7:30-8:45 am.
$38 pp

This is the year!  With the GEA eliminated and court cases pressing the state to action, there is no better time to get together to discuss state aid reform!  Your colleagues at R.E.F.I.T., the Statewide School Finance Consortium and the Mid-Hudson School Study Council will be gathering for breakfast to do just that at the NYSSBA convention in Buffalo in October.  If you’re planning to attend the convention, why not participate in this important event?  To join us, simply let the NYSSBA registrar know when you sign up for the NYSSBA convention or have them add your attendance to your current registration.  
See you there!

 


R.E.F.I.T. Annual Legislative Breakfast – March 6, 2015

The R.E.F.I.T. annual legislative breakfast was held on a cold and icy Friday, March 6 at Western Suffolk BOCES. Despite the weather challenges, the event was attended by many of the R.E.F.I.T Board of Directors, past R.E.F.I.T. presidents and numerous trustees of member districts. This group met with a distinguished group of Long Island legislators that included: Sen. John Flanagan, Chairman of the Senate Standing Committee on Education, Sen. Philip Boyle, Assemblyman Edward Ra, Ranking Minority Member of the Education Committee, Assemblyman Andrew Raia and Assemblyman Joseph Saladino. In addition, the meeting was also attended by staff members from Congressman Steve Israel, Sen. Michael Venditto, Sen. John Flanagan, Assemblyman Chad Lupinacci, and Assemblywoman Kimberly Jean-Pierre.

The morning’s discussion focused on the troublesome gap elimination adjustment, unfunded mandates, unaccompanied minors and insufficient funding from the state and federal government. School district representatives continually stressed the dire consequences to their students and community caused by the insufficient funding of public education to their school districts. Many shared examples illustrating the disastrous impact of the gap elimination adjustment over the past few years to their instructional and non-instructional programs.

In closing, R.E.F.I.T. is committed to pursuing the appropriate funding that provides a sound basic education to all of our students.


R.E.F.I.T. Joins in Addressing the Political, Financial and Legal Challenges of Pursuing a Sound Basic Education

R.E.F.I.T. joined together with the Mid Hudson School Study Council, Rural Schools Association and Statewide School Finance Consortium to co-host a breakfast at Rosie O’Gradys on Monday, October 27th, 2014, during the New York State School Boards Association Conference in New York City for 215 registered attendees. This year there was a scheduled panel discussion. The panel included Larry Levy, the Executive Dean at the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University and Michael Rebell, Executive Director of the Campaign for Educational Equity and Professor of Law and Educational Practice at Teachers College. Unfortunately, Elizabeth Lynam, the Vice President and Director of State Studies at the Citizens Budget Commission, was scheduled to be a panelist, but had to withdraw from the panel due to a family emergency.

The event began with a welcome and introductions from Dr. Robert Dillon, Executive Director of MHSSC and R.E.F.I.T. Dr. Rick Timbs, Executive Director of Statewide School Finance Consortium, offered remarks on our mission to secure a sound basic education for all children in New York. The moderator for the discussion was David Little, recently appointed Executive Director of the Rural Schools Association. The panelist spent a few moments sharing their respective experiences and how they related to K-12 public education. The balance of the program was spent by the panelist answering questions that were submitted by school board trustees and superintendents in attendance. The discussion concluded with the recommendation from the panel to the audience that advocacy efforts by public education stakeholders is effective and needs to be continued.

 


CANDID DISCUSSION AT R.E.F.I.T.'S LEGISLATIVE BREAKFAST

Dr. Robert Dillon opened R.E.F.I.T.'s March 1 legislative breakfast with an arresting comparison.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo's proposed budget, Dr. Dillon pointed out, includes $3.1 billion in spending for the Dept. of Corrections and Community Supervision. 

"According to my math, it costs the taxpayers $33,769 per client," said Dr. Dillon, R.E.F.I.T.'s executive director. Corrections officials "do not have to submit their budget to the taxpayers for voter approval, nor are they subject to any revenue caps or the undemocratic supermajority approval" that hamstrings school districts that want to pierce the tax cap. "Let’s give our children the same classroom resources that the state provides to those incarcerated, so that the students of today will not become the incarcerated of tomorrow."

Dr. Dillon's was speaking to R.E.F.I.T.'s board and to the state lawmakers -- Sens. Carl Marcellino and John Flanagan, and Assemb. Michael Montesano -- who attended the roundtable breakfast. Others around the table in Western Suffolk BOCES' conference room were representatives of Sens. Boyle, LaValle, Zeldin, and Fuschillo; and Assembs. Raia, Lupinacci, and Sweeney.

R.E.F.I.T. members appreciated Sen. Marcellino's candor, if not what he was being candid about. Of the state budget, Marcellino said schools weren't the only ones getting shafted. "We are cutting everything down to the bone," he said. "There is not a program that has not been cut." He also advised school officials to not lock in a pension rate, as Gov. Cuomo has been proposing, because they may get stuck with too high a rate

Thanks to the tax cap and cuts in state aid, 100 school districts are in danger of becoming insolvent within the next two years, according to an estimate by state superintendents. Have lawmakers come up with a plan to deal with insolvent districts? Sen. Flanagan, who is chair of the Senate Committee on Education, said he has asked State Education Dept. officials this very question "several times" but that "there is no concrete plan." 

Sen. Marcellino said the Senate is looking to relax some state laws governing schools, including the ban on advertising on school buses and buildings. But, highlighting the frustrating nature of state government, Assemb. Montesano said if the Senate approves such a measure, the Assembly will push to reduce state aid by the same amount raised by such advertising. 

Perhaps the most sobering piece of news was shared by Assemb. Montesano: "The State Education Department doesn't listen to us [legislators], and doesn't talk to us." So if and when legislators agree with educators and school boards, rarely can these lawmakers penetrate the rarified atmosphere of SED to actually make changes.

Superintendents on R.E.F.I.T.'s board gave snapshots of how all these issues play out locally. 

Amityville superintendent Dr. John Williams described his "tale of two cities." The largely white, affluent homeowners in Village of Amityville tend to enroll their children in private schools, while the black and growing population of Hispanic children in the hamlet of North Amityville attend public school. Increases in ESL and special education costs -- along with rising costs such as pensions, and cuts in state aid -- means other programs must be cut. And the district cannot even think about piercing the tax cap with the required 60% supermajority, because the private school voters won't approve it.

Dr. James Mapes, Superintendent of Baldwin Schools, said he is asking taxpayers to help bridge the district's $6 million budget gap by piercing the tax cap with a 7% increase on the tax levy. After serious belt-tightening -- including staff layoffs and closing two schools -- Mapes is optimistic that when the choices are explained to the Baldwin community, which sends most of its kids to public schools, it will pass the budget in May with more than 60%.

Freeport Superintendent Dr. Kishore Kuncham said that despite his district's looming budget gap, he is not planning to pierce the cap for next year, but will have to make serious cuts. He urged lawmakers to not to give up on pushing for reform of the Triboro Amendment (guaranteed wage increases even when contracts expire) and Wick's Law (which drives up construction costs by requiring separate bids for each element of a big capital project.)

"No other state has a Triboro-type situation," Dr. Kuncham said. "Wick's Law is only in New York State -- not in any other state." Assemb. Montesano countered that the political muscle from the teacher's union, as well as the police and fire unions, makes amending Triboro unlikely.

Commack Superintendent Dr. Donald James described the frustration of going after mandate relief -- the promised-but-undelivered part of the tax cap law. 

"The governor says [to school districts], you come up with proposals for mandate relief," Dr. James said. "But if you do, you get hammered by the public, your board members don't get reelected, and the governor gets reelected." He was referring to politically popular -- but extremely expensive -- unfunded mandates such as Triboro and special education requirements that go beyond federal law.


Dr. Dillon Links School Success to Community Success

R.E.F.I.T. Executive Director Robert Dillon took part in a wide-ranging, thought-provoking Feb. 2 panel, "What is Community?" The panel, -- sponsored by Elmont Online, Highlighting Success, Inc., and the Center for African, Black and Caribbean Studies at Adelphi University -- tackled issues of education, the economy, immigration, and health disparities. The conference was held at Adelphi as part of the university's celebration of Black History Month.

As usual, Dr. Dillon did not mince words, saying the public education system in New York State is in "crisis." 

"And it's more glaring for high-need, high-tax, low-wealth districts," he said. "We've seen class size in these districts increase by 20%, there are fewer extra-curriculars in middle schools and less electives at high schools. That just continues to widen the educational gap, the social gap and the emotional gap between high- and low- wealth districts." 

Educational success is integral to a community's success, Dillon said. "Businesses don't want to relocate where the schools are not working," he  said. 

Long Island districts are perceived as wealthy, but several lower wealth districts on the Island are facing insolvency in the next two or three years, Dr. Dillon said, just like their rural upstate counterparts.

The discussion touched on charter schools, often concentrated in minority and low-wealth districts, which undermine public education. And Dr. Dillon also took on APPR, the cumbersome and costly evaluation system imposed by the state. "This is an unfunded mandate, sucking the financial and human resources out of our districts," Dr. Dillon said. "It is not founded on research, it is driven by non-educators…. Never before have local boards of education been so stripped of their rights."

Also on the panel were: Rabia A. Aziz, ceo of the Long Island Minority AIDS Coalition, Inc.; attorney Frederick Brewington; Lucia Gomez-Jemenez, executive director of LaFuente; and Economics Professor Martin Melkonian.


R.E.F.I.T. Participates in Safeguarding Sound Basic Education Conference

R.E.F.I.T. President Deborah Coates and Executive Director Dr. Robert Dillon joined other state-wide educational advocates at Teachers College, Columbia University on Dec. 14 to take part in a full-day program, Safeguarding Sound Basic Education, sponsored by the Campaign for Educational Equity.

The program, led by Michael Rebell, Executive Director of the Campaign for Educational Equity, was divided into two sections. The first focused on deficient resources found in a number of public schools that participated in the study. The second focused on advocacy positions for future state funding.

The study revealed that numerous constitutional requirements, as defined by the Campaign for Educational Equity, were being ignored -- either intentionally or unintentionally -- by the governor and legislature in several specific areas:

Qualified teachers, principals and other personnelSuitable, up-to-date curriculaAn expanded platform of services for at-risk studentsAdequate resources for students with extraordinary needsStudents with disabilitiesEnglish language learnersClass size/instructional groupingsInstrumentalities of learningSafe and orderly environmentAdequate and accessible facilities

The second session involved brainstorming and discussion on the following issues:

Fair distribution of $700 million of the anticipated increase in state aidMaximizing foundation funding for high-needs districtsEliminating the competitive grant programProviding additional categorical funding above the growthFull day/pre-kindergarten; access for four-year-olds from high needs districts, up to $75 million.Implementation of mandated Common Core, APPR, and RTI initiatives, up to $225 million.Sound basic education emergency aid, up to $200 million.Promoting cost-effectivenessIn special education: expanding BOCES authority to promote regional cost efficiencies; lowering subsidies for certain expense based aids, such as building aid and transportation aid.Delaying implementation of APPR

Constitutional Compliance for 2014 and Thereafter

Below are some other recommendations presented at the conference.

The Regents, the state commissioner of education, and the State Education Department should: 

Amplify the regulations to ensure the minimums they articulate are being met.Add a requirement that a resource-adequacy analysis be included in all school report cards and progress reports.

The governor should:

Act assiduously to root out inefficiency and promote more cost-effective methods for providing educational services.Include a “sound basic education impact statement” in the annual executive budget.

The legislature should follow the Court of Appeals directive to "determine the cost of providing a sound basic education” and then “ensuring that every school will have the resources necessary for providing the opportunity for a sound basic education” by:

Developing an up-to-date cost study methodology based on the actual cost of providing constitutionally mandated services in a cost-effective manner that properly considers student needs and poverty factors.Conducting a current cost study to determine adequate funding levels for public education.Creating fair funding formulas that ensure increased state aid where local ability to pay is low, and that all schools receive the resources they need to provide all students the opportunity for a sound basic education, without arbitrary caps and hold harmless clauses.

Last Updated on Sunday, 03 February 2013 11:57 


R.E.F.I.T.'s Seminar Tackles Tough Topics in Education

It was the first Thursday of summer vacation -- a perfect beach day.

But that didn't stop about 100 school administrators, educators, school board members and PTA officials from filing into a school building. They came for R.E.F.I.T.'s seminar, "How Unfunded Mandates and the Tax Cap Jeopardize A Sound Basic Education," held at Western Suffolk BOCES in Wheatley Heights.

The two-hour seminar kicked off with a presentation on how the state-mandated 2% cap on the tax levy has affected educational programs -- and school budget votes -- all over Long Island. Next came a lively panel discussion that ranged from Gov. Cuomo's new Education Reform Commission, to APPR (one speaker called it "the albatross"), to a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the tax cap.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 28 August 2012 09:32READ MORE... 


Two Studies Spur Call to Action

[Thumbnail image] R.E.F.I.T. recently hosted its annual breakfast at the New York State School Boards Association Conference in Buffalo, and like so many events during the weekend-long convention, a certain gallows humor prevailed. Indeed, with all the talk of reduced state aid, increased unfunded state mandates and the new tax cap, there wasn't much for school officials to cheer about.

Before launching into his sobering keynote speech, Council of School Superintendents Deputy Director Robert Lowry joked that his last name is an adjective that means "dark and gloomy." Lowry went on to share results from his organization's recent study, "At the Edge: A Survey on School Fiscal Matters," which found that 75% of New York State's superintendents said their districts' "financial condition is worse, or significantly worse, than a year ago."

 

Last Updated on Wednesday, 16 November 2011 15:23