South Colonie to host regional advocacy event Feb. 26

Colonie Central High School will once again host stakeholders from dozens of Capital Region area school districts in what has become an annual regional call to action on the fiscal crisis facing public schools.

The event, entitled: “Save Our Schools: Quality Opportunities for Public School Children” promises to again bring students, parents, teachers, taxpayers and school leaders together to talk about what is at stake if state leaders do not reverse course and adequately fund schools. The event will also address the need to maintain local control of public schools and share information in regard to appropriate testing designed to evaluate and support student growth. View the agenda for the event.

“Save Our Schools” will feature the voices of parents and education leaders from throughout the Capital Region describing how the crisis has affected programs and opportunities that are important to them and their neighbors.

The event will be held on Thursday, Feb. 26, at 7 p.m., in the Mark Cornell Auditorium at Colonie Central High School, 1 Raider Blvd., Albany, NY.

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.


Mandate relief panel goes quietly

A special panel set up by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in 2011 designed to examine local mandates and areas to save municipalities costs has ended with no proposals.

“There weren’t any proposals to the mandate relief council in the last year,” state Sen. Jack Martins told the Albany Times Union on Monday after speaking at the state Conference of Mayors and Municipal Officials.

While some small relief efforts (including the relaxing of rules regarding purchases by school districts) were enacted, larger mandates such as the Wicks Law and Triborough Amendment were not addressed, according to the Times Union.

From the get-go, Cuomo was in charge of this panel. According to Capitol Confidential, the governor controlled the majority of appointments to the panel and according to the legislation, the council would conclude on Jan.12, 2015 or “upon departure of the fifty-sixth governor, whichever comes first.”

Groups across New York state have been pushing the governor for mandate relief since he entered office in 2011. In June, a statewide coalition of groups representing businesses, local governments and schools joined together to express their dissatisfaction with the lack of mandate relief and called for six efforts that if enacted, would have helped ease the financial burden on schools and municipalities. They included: including:

  • Freezing step increases when contracts expire
  • Controlling construction costs
  • Providing portable pension benefits
  • Redefining compulsory arbitration
  • Capping health insurance costs
  • Prohibiting new unfunded mandates

In the past, Cuomo has proposed initiatives that, on the surface, appear to benefit students, but have had the potential to become new un/underfunded mandates for schools. One example is the statewide universal full-day pre-kindergarten initiative. The state is investing $1.5 billion over five years, but many educational experts, including former education commissioner John King claim that such a program would cost at least that much to operate each year.

“If you want to get to true universality you’re probably talking on the order of about $1.6 billion a year,” King said in an interview after testifying before the joint Assembly-Senate budget hearing on education spending.

While mandates increase accountability and in many cases improve educational quality, they can also limit flexibility and affect how districts spend money. Mandates not only focus on the education, health and safety of students, but they also encompass a wide range of daily school operations. These include:

  • Annual Professional Performance Reviews for teachers and principals
  • Common Core Learning Standards adoption, implementation and realignment of existing curriculum
  • Special education mandates for Individualized Education Plans, specialized
    instruction by appropriately certified professionals and related service providers, a CSE chairperson, 504 plans and more. The state has at least 200 mandates beyond federal requirements
  • Transportation of students with disabilities to their programs (up to 50 miles); private
    school and charter school students (up to 15 miles); and homeless students to current or prior district (parental choice)
  • Availability of and staff training on using automatic external defibrillators (AEDs) in school facilities
  • Purchase of graphing calculators for students taking intermediate-level and high school math and science assessments
  • Maintenance of a health record (including dental health) for every student.
  • Required collection of students’ Body Mass Indexes, including screening for eating disorders, and reports on the information to the state Department of Health

If you think that’s a long list, check out this more extensive listing of New York state mandates.

You can learn more about mandates and mandate relief in our Mandate Monday series that we launched in 2012.

#FridayFlick: Stand Up 4 Public Schools

Good morning! Ed Speaks is launching a new video series on Fridays called The Friday Flick (#FridayFlick).

Each Friday, we’ll bring you a new video that showcases an interesting component of education in New York state. So sit back, relax and enjoy the show. Oh, and please silence your cell phones…unless you’re watching this on your cell phone, in which case, crank it to 10.

Around the state, many regions have been holding advocacy events, designed to raise awareness of the various issues facing public schools today. The video below, entitled Stand Up 4 Public Schools, has been shown at a few of these events and it aims to shine a light on the drastic effects of the Gap Elimination Adjustment and what community members can do to advocate on behalf of their local school district. Stand Up 4 Public Schools is the title of a national advocacy campaign created by the National School Boards Association.

New NYSUT ad calls Cuomo’s priorities ‘wrong’

NYSUT has taken to the airwaves, producing a new commercial that calls Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s education priorities “wrong” and asks that he visit a classroom to learn what all kids need to get a great education.

Since the Governor released his budget proposal on Jan. 21 calling for significant changes to the teacher evaluation process, NYSUT has been on the offensive, launching new ad and social media campaigns. In a recent video address to NYSUT members, president Karen Magee said that Gov. Cuomo has declared war on the teaching profession.

“Instead of standing with educators, parents and community, the Governor has chosen to side with his billionaire friends, and with those who seek to demonize public education and service and seek to vilify and scapegoat teachers,” Magee said.

Cuomo has called for 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 budget proposal, 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 state’s systemic failure to provide enough resources for all of its students and to do so equitably – while giving all teachers the tools and support they need – is the real crisis and the one our governor is trying to sweep under the rug,” Magee said following the Governor’s budget address.

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

NYS Allies for Public Education sends Cuomo FOIL request for state aid runs

One has to imagine that it would be easier to get a ticket to the Super Bowl on Sunday than it would be to get a hold of the 2015-16 school aid runs.

That’s not stopping some organizations from trying though.

On Thursday, the New York State Allies for Public Education (NYSAPE) submitted a FOIL request to Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the State Records Office, calling for the release of any and all records relating to the 2015-16 state aid projections and/or corresponding school aid runs.

Last week, the Division of Budget announced that it would not be releasing school aid runs until the Legislature passes the Governor’s education reform agenda.

NYSAPE believes Cuomo’s decision to withhold the aid figures “creates a hardship and undue burden on our already stressed local public school districts statewide, currently endeavoring to work diligently on their local budget development process before the May vote.”

“We believe your (Cuomo’s) actions fly in the face of democracy,” the official request reads. “We believe this information should be made accessible to the public as a matter of course first and foremost based on principles of good faith and dealing and, second, pursuant to the democratic spirit and intent of open government as codified in the NYS Public Officers Law.”

On Tuesday this week, the New York State Educational Conference Board, comprised of the seven leading educational organizations across the state, penned a letter to Cuomo demanding that state aid runs be released to school districts immediately.

“In our collective memory, it is unprecedented for the state to withhold the release of executive budget aid runs,” the letter read. “These aid runs are not simply a state budget “tradition,” they are necessary and indeed critical to the local budget development process for hundreds of school districts across the state.”

Click here to read the official FOIL request from NYSAPE.



DiNapoli: 90 school districts in fiscal stress

Ninety public school districts statewide are fiscally stressed, accounting for 13 percent of the 672 reviewed, according to New York state comptroller Thomas DiNapoli.

This is the second year DiNapoli’s office has assessed and scored the financial stability of school districts. Last year, 87 districts were listed in fiscal stress.

“School districts are the hearts of many of our communities, but they face fiscal pressures that are unlikely to change any time soon,” DiNapoli said. “Although the increases in fiscal stress are relatively minor, the same problems persist, including increased deficits and dwindling fund balances. I urge school officials, especially those overseeing districts with deteriorating fiscal health, to use these scores as an impetus for more deliberate and careful long-term budget planning.”

10 school districts are listed in “significant stress”. They include Wyandanch Union Free School District (Suffolk County); Niagara-Wheatfield Central School District (Niagara); East Ramapo Central School District (Rockland); Lawrence Union Free School District (Nassau); Watervliet City School District (Albany); Copiague Union Free School District (Suffolk); Lewiston-Porter Central School District (Niagara); West Seneca Central School District (Erie); Hempstead Union Free School District (Nassau); and the Peekskill City School District (Westchester).

According to language in Governor Cuomo’s proposed budget bill, if the Legislature does not enact the education reforms the Governor outlined in his budget address last week, districts will not receive any aid greater than their 2014-15 amount for each of the next two years.

Complicating matters for districts, the Division of Budget announced that it would not be releasing school aid runs until the Legislature passes the Governor’s education reform agenda. The aid runs are usually released within hours of the Governor’s budget presentation.

Click here to read the complete report and a list of school district fiscal stress scores.

NYSECB letter to Cuomo: School districts should not be held hostage

The New York State Educational Conference Board, comprised of the seven leading educational organizations across the state, has penned a letter to Gov. Andrew Cuomo demanding that state aid runs be released to school districts immediately.

“In our collective memory, it is unprecedented for the state to withhold the release of executive budget aid runs.
These aid runs are not simply a state budget “tradition,” they are necessary and indeed critical to the local
budget development process for hundreds of school districts across the state.”

Last week, the Division of Budget announced that it would not be releasing school aid runs until the Legislature passes the Governor’s education reform agenda. The aid runs are usually released within hours of the Governor’s budget presentation.

Click here to read the entire letter [PDF]