Hundreds pack Colonie High for ‘Save Our Schools’ advocacy event

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Watervliet City Schools superintendent Dr. Lori Caplan address local legislators.

Stakeholders from school districts around the Capital Region converged Thursday night at Colonie Central High School to continue an annual call to action on the fiscal crisis facing public schools.

Local legislators from around the region were in attendance and given prime seating — on the stage — providing them the opportunity to hear first-hand from area educators, students, parents and board members how a lack of funding, unfair assessments and performance evaluations are crippling public education.

According to organizers, the Gap Elimination Adjustment (GEA), which takes money away from schools to help balance the state budget, has cost Capital Region schools approximately $445 million in promised state aid since its inception. This loss in aid has forced many districts to lay off teachers and staff, and cut educational program offerings to students.

“Governor Cuomo said that teachers wouldn’t be impacted. Tell that to the 30,000 teachers that have been let go,” Oppenheim-Ephratah-St. Johnsville Central School District teacher Laura Bellinger said.

District leaders directed their frustration at the inequitable distribution of aid and pleaded with local legislators to correct the problem.

“I’m not asking for someone else’s piece of the pie,” Watervliet City Schools superintendent Lori Caplan said. “I just want fair and equitable distribution.”

“We have to change the funding formula and make it fair to all districts,” Assemblyman James Tedisco said. “This is not a one-size-fits-all system.”

The teachers who spoke urged the legislators to use a common sense approach when it comes to student assessments and teacher evaluations.

The governor’s budget proposal outlined a plan that would change the evaluation process so that 50 percent of scores are based on state exams and the other 50 percent on observations. Teachers would have to be rated highly effective or effective in both areas to receive an overall rating of highly effective or effective, and that this process would eliminate much of the local testing taking place in school districts under the existing evaluation process.

“We all deserve better than this,” Schalmont teacher Jessica Melchior said. “Let’s use assessment how it was meant to be used — as a formative or summative tool in a professional learning community. Let’s judge teachers on things that matter.  Let’s not take Common Core out of context for a political agenda.”

Students in attendance also spoke out on testing, questioning the importance of pre-tests, which are given before any subject matter is taught in a given area, to judge how much a student knows.

“It’s a rare case that a student takes the pre-test seriously,” Schalmont student Bill Schmidt said. “We know the pre-test doesn’t factor into our grade. We know that we don’t know anything about chemistry, so we fill in all the A bubbles on our scantron. Basically, we get a day to make sure we color within the lines of the bubble marked ‘A.'”  

The legislators in attendance urged those in attendance to stay vocal and keep the pressure on the governor in order to get the change they want.

“Keep your voices strong,” Assemblyman John McDonald said. “Stay strong. We’re going to get this done.”

Leading education groups call for Tax Cap changes

The New York State Educational Conference Board (ECB) has outlined a series of recommendations that would fix some of the most damaging elements of the state’s Property Tax Cap for schools.

The ECB paper released on Wednesday explains that schools have always sought a balance between a budget that meets the needs of students and addresses the concerns of taxpayers, but the tax cap signed into law in 2011 has created some fundamental challenges with the school budgeting process.

The 11 recommendations in the paper fall into two categories: (1) changes to the policy framework that supports the tax cap and (2) technical corrections that adjust for shortcomings that are now evident based on three years of practical experience with the cap.

The framework of New York’s tax cap is uniquely restrictive for school districts. The ECB recommendations call for redesigning of the voter approval mechanism for districts seeking to override the cap, which currently requires a 60 percent supermajority. ECB also calls for the harmful zero percent contingency budget cap to be to be adjusted. Neither of these tax cap provisions, the 60 percent voter supermajority or the zero percent contingent cap, applies to the state’s towns, cities, villages, and counties.

The paper also cites tax caps models that are at work in Massachusetts and New Jersey that do not contain the restrictive elements of New York’s cap for schools.

A second group of recommendations in the paper would address technical problems with the tax cap calculation itself. They relate to items such as improving how the formula accounts for payments-in-lieu of taxes (PILOTs), BOCES capital costs, transfers to a Capital Reserve Fund, and the carryover provision.

The paper points out that the challenges introduced by the cap have only been exacerbated by the state aid losses of recent years.

Click here to read paper [PDF]

The Educational Conference Board is comprised of the state’s seven leading educational organizations representing parents, classroom teachers, school-related professionals, school business officials, building administrators, superintendents and school boards. Its members are: the Conference of Big 5 School Districts; NYS Association of School Business Officials; NYS Council of School Superintendents; New York State PTA; NYS School Boards Association; New York State United Teachers and the School Administrators Association of NYS.

Comptroller releases report on tax cap

The Comptroller’s office has released a new report, detailing the effects of the state’s property tax cap over the last three years and its impact on New York school districts.

In 2011, New York state leaders responded to calls for property tax relief by enacting a law that placed new restrictions on how school districts (and municipalities) may increase their tax levies. The law does not prohibit tax levy increases greater than 2 percent. Despite how it’s been described by some politicians and the media, the legislation requires each district to calculate its own tax levy limit. Two percent (or the rate of inflation, if less) is just one of eight factors in this calculation. The law also establishes a higher threshold of voter approval for a budget to pass if a district’s proposed tax levy increase (before exclusions outlined in the law) exceeds its individual tax levy limit.

Some of the interesting findings from the Comptroller’s report:

  • The tax cap poses more of a constraint on those school districts that derive a larger portion of their revenues from the property tax.
  • Based on the individual tax levy limit calculations, 363 school districts could have increased the tax levy by more than 2 percent (if they levied right up to the tax levy limit) and, of these, 62 could have increased the tax levy by 4 percent or more while still remaining under the cap. In contrast, 69 districts were held to less than a 1 percent increase—with 17 of these actually being subject to a levy decrease from the prior year.
  • The number of school districts overriding the tax cap has declined each year. In school year 2013, 6.5 percent of school districts exceeded the tax levy limit. By school year 2015, the number of school districts overriding the tax cap decreased by more than half, to 2.8 percent. This decline may be due in part to the newly enacted Property Tax Freeze Credit (“tax freeze”). Generally, the two-year tax freeze program provides credits to qualifying taxpayers who live within taxing jurisdictions that remain within the tax cap. Taxpayers will not be eligible for the credit if their school district exceeds the tax cap—providing added incentive for districts to stay under the cap.
  • In general, school districts’ decisions to override the tax cap were based, at least in part, on necessity. Comptroller DiNapoli recently implemented a Fiscal Stress Monitoring System to evaluate and report on the level of fiscal stress being faced by localities and school districts across the State. School districts received their first round of scores in January 2014. When examining the relationship between fiscal stress and tax cap overrides, we found that in each of the three years the law has been in effect, fiscally stressed school districts were nearly three times more likely to override the tax cap when compared to school districts that were grouped in the “No Designation” category.
  • Of the 19 school districts that are overriding the tax cap for the 2014-15 fiscal year, five (26 percent) were found to be in fiscal stress.

Click here to read the entire report.

 

Cuomo calls for $1.1 billion school aid increase and education reforms, no mention of GEA

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Note: This story was updated on Jan. 23 to reflect the current interpretation of the Governor’s budget bill regarding aid increases.

Under the Executive Budget Proposal outlined by Governor Andrew Cuomo yesterday, state funding for schools would increase by $1.1 billion next year – provided that state lawmakers go along with a series of education reforms that he described as “ambitious” in his combined budget address and State of the State message.

The reforms Cuomo proposed include an overhaul of the existing teacher evaluation law, more stringent tenure requirements, funding to expand preschool programs, lifting the cap on charter schools, and a new turnaround process for the state’s lowest performing schools.

An additional $1.1 billion in state aid next year would represent a 4.8 percent increase over the current year. The Division of Budget announced that school aid runs would not be released to districts until the Legislature passes the Governor’s education reform agenda.

According to language in the Governor’s proposed budget bill, if the Legislature does not enact the education reforms he outlined, districts will not see an increase in state aid next year or the year after.

The Governor also did not address the Gap Elimination Adjustment, or GEA, which is the mechanism through which the state has diverted promised school funding over the last five years to meet other budget priorities. In that time, schools have lost more than $9.52 billion cumulatively to the GEA, and they are still owed $1.04 billion.

The overall proposed increase in aid falls short of the $2 billion or more that the New York State Board of Regents and leading education groups have called for to meet the needs of students next year.

The Governor is also proposing to make permanent the state’s property tax levy cap, which is set to expire after this current year, as well as a new “circuit breaker” tax reduction program. This would reduce property taxes for some homeowners and renters based on income and the amount of their tax bills.

The series of education reforms Cuomo called for included changes to how districts evaluate teachers and principals. Under the existing process, evaluation scores consist of essentially three components: classroom observations, growth on state test scores and locally-selected learning targets, and additional measures of student achievement. Scores on these components result in a rating of highly effective, effective, developing or ineffective.

“They’re baloney,” Cuomo said of the current evaluations. “How can 38 percent of students be ready and 98 percent of the teachers rated effective? The problem is clear. We need real, fair, accurate teacher evaluations.”

In his speech, the Governor outlined a plan that would change the evaluation process so that 50 percent of scores are based on state exams and the other 50 percent on observations. While many other details of this plan are still unknown, Gov. Cuomo did say that the elements of the scoring system for teacher observations would be set in state law, rather than locally negotiated as they are now.

Cuomo also said that teachers would have to be rated highly effective or effective in both areas to receive an overall rating of highly effective or effective, and that this process would eliminate much of the local testing taking place in school districts under the existing evaluation process.

“We will stop local score inflation, which has resulted in virtually all teachers being rated effective by setting,” he said.

Under Cuomo’s plan, a teacher who has two consecutive “ineffective” ratings would be removed from their teaching position.

The budget proposal includes funding to continue rewarding teachers with annual stipends who are deemed highly effective and who mentor their peers. The Governor would also create a teacher-in-residency program akin to what is provided for doctors and offer free tuition to top SUNY/CUNY graduates who commit to teaching in New York schools for five years.

The Governor’s proposal also continues to provide grants for the “P-Tech” Pathways in Technology and Early College High School program, which connects high school to two years of college in the STEM fields.

Cuomo outlined a plan to address what he called “failing schools” that would allow a nonprofit, turnaround expert or another district to take over a school after three years of poor results. This entity would be charged with overhauling the curriculum, terminating underperforming staff and recruiting high-performing educators. These schools would be given priority in a variety of state grant programs, and the students would be given priority in charter school lotteries.

The Governor proposed combining the charter school caps for New York City and the rest of the state into one statewide cap and increasing it by 100 new charter schools, for a total cap of 560. Under the existing caps, there are 24 slots left for new charter schools in New York City and 159 slots available statewide. The governor also proposed legislation to ensure that charter schools serve “their fair share” of high-needs populations in relation to public schools, including English language learners, students living in poverty, and students with disabilities.

Cuomo also proposed an additional $365 million in spending for universal prekindergarten, in line with the plan approved last year to phase $1.5 billion in over five years to expand prekindergarten access statewide. He also called for $25 million for new preschool programs for 3-year-olds in the state’s highest-need school districts.

In all, the $1.1 billion school aid increase includes just more than $1 billion in new school aid, $25 million for the preschool initiative, and $25 million for other education reforms.

The Executive Budget Proposal now heads to the state legislature for consideration. A final state budget is expected by April 1, 2015.

Click here to download the Governor’s 2015-16 Budget Briefing Book [PDF]

Get out and vote today

Ballot being slipped into voting boxAfter months of political attack ads, debates and candidate promises, Election Day is here.

When New York voters head to the polls today, in addition to candidates for office, they will decide on a $2 billion Smart Schools bond referendum that, if approved, would provide each school district with funding for new educational technology and infrastructure improvements that could also include classroom space for prekindergarten programs.

Each school district would receive an allocation of the $2 billion Smart Schools that is proportionate to the district’s share of total formula based school aid in the 2013-14 school year, excluding Building Aid, Universal Prekindergarten Aid, and the Gap Elimination Adjustment. For example, if a district receives 2.0% of total State school aid, the school district’s Smart Schools allocation would be $40 million (.02 * $2,000,000,000). You can click here for a calculator of how much your school district would be eligible to receive.

If you haven’t educated yourself on the issues, take the time to do so. An educated voter is a democracy’s best citizen. We here at Ed Speaks encourage you to vote and exercise your civic duty. People tend to forego voting in the midterm elections. Let’s change that today. Polls are open until 9:00 p.m. tonight.

Friday Rundown 10.3.14

A good Friday morning to you – the first Friday in October! Here’s what you may have missed in education headlines this week.

State officials discuss changes in Regents format (Glens Falls Post Star)

Assemblyman James Skoufis: Stop balancing budgets on the backs of our children (Skoufis press release)

Cuomo announces $22.4 million education grant for NYS (NY.gov)

New York tax system is archaic (Rochester Democrat and Chronicle)

State judge tosses challenge to NY tax cap (Press Connects)

How much time will new Common Core tests take kids to finish? Quite a lot. (Washington Post)

Superintendents share classroom tech successes (Capital New York)

Rethinking the 
high school diploma (Education Next)

In your opinion: New school snacks will help children (The Daily Star)

U.S. Department of Education announces 2014 National Blue Ribbon Schools (Ed.gov)

Times Union: State disqualifies 320,000 from school tax relief

Via Rick Karlin: Approximately 320,000 New Yorkers have been informed that they won’t be receiving a School Tax Relief, or STAR exemption, when tax bills go out in September.

According to state officials, certain properties have not met New York’s registration requirements, including those who earn $500,000 or more annually, and those who have registered more than one home for the exemption. The exemption only applies to the primary residence.

The average STAR savings is $700, although several factors contribute to the calculation of the actual exemption amount, including the level of assessment in the community and, for Enhanced STAR (age 65 and older) only, an annual adjustment based on the rate of inflation. Prior-year savings under STAR are also a factor, as there is now a 2 percent cap on the increase in maximum STAR savings over the previous year.

Last year, a new law signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo meant that all homeowners receiving Basic STAR had to re-register with the NYS Department of Taxation and Finance in order to continue receiving the exemption in 2014 and beyond.

Most New York state homeowners are familiar with the STAR program launched in 1998-99. Originally intended to assist senior citizen homeowners (age 65 and over), STAR was quickly increased and expanded to include residential properties of other school district taxpayers.

Local school districts are reimbursed by the state for property tax revenues that go
uncollected as a result of STAR exemptions. Since its inception, STAR has shifted more
than $3.4 billion from the local tax burden to the state.

Friday Rundown: 4.18.14

Good morning! Did you realize that every day this week was a palindrome?

4/13/14
4/14/14
4/15/14
4/16/14
4/17/14
4/18/14
4/19/14

Pretty cool, right? We’ll call it Fun Fact Friday. On to the Rundown.

Cuomo accepts pro-charter role (Albany Times Union)…Editorial: Cuomo drives schools to the brink  (Glens Falls Post Star)

State senator joins push to delay teacher exam (Journal News)

There are 215 more master teachers in NY (Journal News)

Web Essay: When teachers can’t teach, students fail (Rochester Democrat & Chronicle)

They still don’t get it about Common Core (Times Herald Record – subscription may be required)

Opt-out movement gains traction across region (Buffalo News)

Revised SAT Won’t Include Obscure Vocabulary Words (NY Times)

Editorial: Allow voters to decide on taxes (Glens Falls Post Star)

Editorial: Happy, unhappy times for school budgets in Elmira region (Elmira Star Gazette)

Schumer calls for funding to fight school violence (Buffalo News)

Parental involvement is overrated (NY Times)

5 Ways School Libraries Can Stay Relevant in the Digital Age (Center for Digital Education)

Public Education Is Under Attack

Check out this great editorial on the systematic defunding of public schools from Metroland. It focuses on the Albany City school district, but  broadens into a discussion of the impact of the GEA on schools statewide.

Our favorite part: “Forcing further cuts and reorganizations on cash-strapped school districts, especially those serving overwhelming low-income populations, and then punishing them when those families with choices flee and those who remain struggle to thrive and learn (as measured by distinctly non­­–21st century style standardized testing regimes) is sick and twisted.”

Mohawk Valley residents stand together at “Fight for Our Valley Schools” education rally #NYSchoolsInPeril

Rally_ANew York state’s formula for funding schools is cheating Mohawk Valley students, and residents must demand a change.

That was the message delivered to almost 250 school board members, school employees, residents and students at the Fight for Our Valley Schools education rally sponsored by Herkimer-Fulton-Hamilton-Otsego BOCES on Thursday, March 6, at Herkimer College. Statewide School Finance Consortium Executive Director Rick Timbs, Herkimer Central School District Board of Education Vice-President Robert Mihevc and Herkimer Student Council President Daniel Adamek each delivered an impassioned message to the crowd painting a factual, but bleak picture of the plight facing the area’s schools.

“The truth is: You’re getting the short end of the stick,” Timbs told the audience.
Mihevc emceed the evening, welcoming attendees, introducing guests and offering his perspective of how state funding has negatively impacted his home district.

Throughout the evening, attendees texted friends and tweeted their support of the initiative.
After the event, Assemblywoman Claudia Tenney spoke with many to listen to their concerns and to also encourage their involvement.

Numbers speak volumes

Timbs spoke for more than one hour, delivering a data-packed presentation that explained how New York’s school funding process deprives poorer schools of much-needed money while continuing to supplement the already strong academic and extracurricular programs of wealthier districts.

The problem begins with the simple fact that the Valley’s school districts lack the resources necessary to support their schools, he said. Using the state’s measure of a district’s wealth, the average New York school district is 1.1 times wealthier than Poland, the area’s wealthiest district, and 2.7 times wealthier than Central Valley, the area’s poorest district. He shocked the audience when he revealed that one New York school district is 52 times wealthier than the state average, making it more than 100 times wealthier than the average school in the Herkimer BOCES. Without sufficient resources to fully support their own schools, local districts rely more heavily on state aid than the average state school.

So, when the state began cutting school aid in 2009-10 to close the state’s budget deficit, it hurt Valley schools and its students worse than the average school. These cuts, known as the Gap Elimination Adjustment or GEA, have totaled $42.1 million dollars over four years to the 10 Herkimer BOCES component school districts.

“If there wasn’t a GEA – if there wasn’t a cut – life would be a lot easier in schools,” Timbs said.

Timbs noted that the GEA hurts poorer schools more than it hurts wealthier schools because poorer districts lack a property tax base to make up for lost revenue. His data reveals that area schools would have to raise property taxes by 5 to 13 percent to offset revenue lost under the 2014-15 projected GEA, while wealthy districts would only need to raise taxes by less than 1 percent.

He also refuted claims that the schools will get more state aid than in past years as the state reduces the GEA. He explained that districts will receive more aid than last year, but still not as much as they were promised four years ago. According to Timbs, even the GEA restoration plan penalizes poorer districts. In 2013-14, the poorest districts received an additional $83 per pupil while the wealthiest districts received $220 per pupil.

Unable to further burden local taxpayers, local school districts have cut staff and program and spent their savings. He warned that districts can cut the same teacher once or spend their savings once; schools are running out of options.

Repeatedly, he asked the crowd if they were beginning to see a pattern.

More than state aid and the GEA

Timbs said two other state initiatives are crippling schools.

The tax levy limit, mistakenly called the 2 percent tax cap, takes even more money from Herkimer BOCES school districts.

“None of the districts in this auditorium can raise their budgets more than 1 percent and still stay within the (2014-15) 1.46 percent tax levy limit,” he said.

He also decried the unfairness of the STAR property tax exemption saying that the state has increased the exemption in wealthy districts. The increase lowers the taxes of those living in the state’s wealthier communities, despite the fact that these communities enjoy high incomes and schools with broad academic and extracurricular programs.

A call to action

Timbs closed by encouraging everyone to ask elected officials to end the GEA and to develop a school funding plan that ensures students in all areas of the state, regardless of community wealth, of the high quality education they deserve.

Herkimer High School Student Council President Daniel Adamek took the microphone to present a student perspective on school funding. During a special summer program in Vermont, he had the opportunity to meet with students from throughout New England. Those conversations led him to fully realize how little his school could offer compared to other schools.

He stood before the audience and recorded a brief video of himself saying, “Governor Cuomo, my name is Dan Adamek, and I have a message for you.” Then, he turned the video camera toward the audience who chanted in unison, “Save our schools, save our schools!”

 

He invited everyone to visit a newly launched, student-run website Students for Fair Funding at www.fairfundingny.webs.com.

“We must tell our government that quality education is a human right – not a privilege reserved for the rich,” Adamek said.

Click here to visit the Herkimer BOCES website and learn more about advocacy efforts that you can get involved in.