POV: An Open Letter to Governor Cuomo

  • Home >>
  • POV: An Open Letter to Governor Cuomo

Published by: admin

This is a guest blog, authored by Stephen Tomlinson, Superintendent of the Broadalbin-Perth Central School District

Dear Governor Cuomo:

I’m writing to ask for your help, both in your role as governor of the State of New York and as a lobbyist for the students of our state.

Broadalbin-Perth, the school district that I lead—and reside in as a parent of a kindergarten student—is in trouble. We are dangerously close to being unable to provide our students with the sound, basic education that is guaranteed to them by the State Constitution.

We have followed all of the rules and recommendations that you have given to school districts during your time in office. We also followed the recommendations of your predecessors, dating back to the 1980s when the Broadalbin and Perth school districts merged in order to maximize local resources and expand educational opportunities.

Over the last three years, we have made—and are continuing to make—decisions designed to control costs and increase efficiency in the way we operate our schools. We have exhausted our fund balance to make up for lost state aid and to forestall devastating program cuts, keeping only what we need to ensure fundamental financial security and staying well within the state limit for unappropriated fund balance.

We’ve made overtures to neighboring school districts and municipalities to consolidate or share services, and we have several agreements in place. We’re utilizing BOCES services whenever possible, both to save money and to provide programs and services for our students that we could not otherwise offer on our own. We’ve even participated in a regional transportation pilot study. In fact, I believe that Broadalbin-Perth can stand as a model school district when it comes to actively seeking out and engaging in shared services.

Recent negotiations with several of our employee bargaining units have resulted in significant savings, and we’re currently seeking the same results with our teachers’ union. We’re also working with our teachers’ union to develop an Annual Professional Performance Review system that holds teachers and administrators accountable for student learning, and we are on track to meet your January 2013 deadline.

Our true value tax rate is historically and currently among the lowest in the region, at $16.16 per $1,000 of property value. Our administrators’ salaries are also among the lowest in the region—21st-lowest of 93 school districts, according to the latest Albany Business Review rankings—and we have relatively few administrators for a school district our size. Our per-pupil spending, $16,156, is the 17th-lowest among 91 school districts in the Greater Capital Region, according to the Albany Business Review—yet our student achievement is relatively high, with our district ranking 35th overall in the same report.

So, why do we need your help, you may be wondering? Despite our very best efforts, and some very real achievements and progress, beginning this September we will not be able to provide much more for our students than what is mandated by the state and federal governments. And if our budget is voted down by our residents—as it has been in two of the last four years—we won’t even be able to meet the mandates.

How did we come to this point? Since 2008, when the stock market crashed and state foundation aid to schools was frozen, we have been trimming around the edges, getting closer and closer to our core programs. Over the last three years, we have cut the equivalent of 25.5 full-time positions from our staff of 300—a reduction of nearly 10 percent. These cuts included 12.5 FTE teaching positions and three administrative/management positions. We’ve also reduced extracurricular and athletic program offerings, and increased class sizes. So far, we’ve been able to avoid wholesale cuts to our academic programs.

That’s all about to change. And that’s why I’m looking to you. We need you to work with us to find real and immediate solutions to the problems that Broadalbin-Perth is facing. We can’t wait two or three years—our school district won’t survive that long.

If we raise taxes up to the limit prescribed by the tax levy cap legislation, including exemptions, and if we almost completely exhaust our fund balance, we are still left with a $2.4 million gap between projected revenues and expenditures—nearly 10 percent of our 2011-12 total budget.

Theoretically, we could completely exhaust our fund balance to help fill our budget gap. However, if we do that, one unexpected expense—a leaky roof, a broken boiler, or worse—would force us to borrow money to cover our costs and leave us with interest payments that we can’t afford. As it stands now, we may have to borrow money anyway, just to make payroll in September.

Our situation is further complicated by the ongoing revenue problems of our single largest taxpayer, the Hudson River-Black River Regulating District. Earlier this school year, the regulating district repaid two years’ worth of back taxes—only after the Hudson River section borrowed money from the Black River section, and only after our school district paid $8,000 in legal fees. The regulating district has not yet paid its taxes for the 2011-12 school year, a total of $289,402, and we do not anticipate that it will be able to pay because its revenue problem has not yet been resolved.

This situation has left us with very few choices. In order to close our budget gap for 2012-13, we’re looking at eliminating art and music instruction in our elementary schools, French as a foreign language offering, upper-level Spanish classes, social workers, and all interscholastic athletics and extracurricular programs. We will also reduce technology instruction at our elementary and middle schools; health instruction at our middle school; science, social studies and business electives at our high school; career and technical education opportunities for our high school students; and will revert from full-day to half-day kindergarten.

I don’t want to make any of these cuts, as they provide invaluable learning opportunities and support services for our students. However, under New York State law, they are not mandated, and we must prioritize the programs that we are legally obligated to provide.

At this point, there is no way to avoid all of these potential losses, but with your help, we might be able to mitigate some. We are asking that you:

  • Recommend that some or all of the $250 million in grant funding that you proposed being awarded competitively instead be distributed to the state’s most needy school districts.
  • Fix the school funding formula so that more state aid goes to the neediest school districts in the state.
  • Follow through on your pledge for meaningful mandate relief—which our school districts desperately need.

I know the problems facing Broadalbin-Perth are not solely your responsibility to solve. However, I don’t know what more we can do as a district. Our books are open to you. We invite you or members of your staff to examine them and let us know what we’re missing. Tell us how we can be more efficient. Tell us how to survive—educationally and fiscally—into 2013.

I applaud you for taking on the role of students’ lobbyist. Right now, the students of the Broadalbin-Perth Central School District need you. Please help them.

A message from Education Speaks: We are very happy that this post has generated so many responses. We’d like to remind people to please ensure that any comment they submit follows our policies and guidelines. Thank you!