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Long Island School Budgets: Tax Dollars Go to Work

It all comes down to Tuesday's vote


By Spencer Rumsey


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Threats of job cuts and wage freezes. An onslaught of school budget repudiations of historical proportions.

That’s what happened in New Jersey last month when almost 60 percent of its school budgets were voted down. Will a similar tsunami hit our school districts next Tuesday? That’s the $10 billion question that has many Long Island school administrators and taxpayers up at night.

Voters rejected more than 58 percent of the school budgets in the Garden State—a stunning rate not seen since 1976. Some LI educators believe a similar massacre may be in the wings here, when cash-strapped taxpayers hit the polls on May 18. Like New Jersey, Long Island has some of the highest property taxes in the nation—and 70 percent of it is due to the cost of public education. Combine that tax bite with the worst recession in a lifetime, the scandalous stalemate in Albany and the vitriolic mood of the electorate, and you have the formula for an extremely averse reaction to any new spending proposals.

To cool down that fever, many LI school boards have taken drastic steps this year to rein in tax-levy increases and budgeted spending increases, hoping what they’ve come up with won’t be more than the taxpayers can bear. District administrators have dipped into their reserves, they’ve cut programs, and they’ve laid off teachers and support staff. Across the Island teachers’ unions have responded with wage freezes and give-backs to hold onto as many jobs as possible.

Take Hempstead Union Free School District, for example. It has proposed its “lowest increase in 13 years,” it proclaims proudly in a press release, a budget increase of 1.94 percent.

The 1,400-member Brentwood Teachers Association, the largest teachers’ union in New York State (NYS) outside the five boroughs, voted overwhelmingly to take temporary pay cuts and give up next year’s raises. These teachers will earn $900 less next year, according to Joe Hogan, head of the association.

“We were looking at the potential of losing close to 400 teachers,” he tells the Press, “and that would have been devastating to the community, the children, and, of course, my members.” Despite the union’s concessions, they still could lose 60 jobs even if the budget passes.

Yet even this year’s unprecedented bloodletting is not enough to quell the fury of those who say LI’s school districts couldn’t be trimmed enough.

Big Bucks and Shallow Pockets

You don’t have to be an A student to know overall spending is still going up throughout Long Island’s school districts. And it’s no wonder: We’re not talking about some small-time operation, like that quaint clapboard one-room schoolhouse at the Old Bethpage Village Restoration. Long Island’s education enterprise serves more than 476,000 students in 124 districts. It already runs on $10.5 billion, and there’s more money coming down the pike: For Long Island’s 2010-2011 budgets the average tax increase is 3.5 percent and the average budget increase is 2.38 percent, according to the New York State Department of Education. Those increases are above the 2.1 percent consumer inflation rate for our metropolitan region as of March.

For hard-pressed taxpayers these budget and tax-levy increases offer small relief. And their resentment is palpable. Some, like Fred Gorman, head of Long Islanders for Education Reform (LIFER), are urging voters to turn their school boards down, especially if their districts’ teachers haven’t conceded enough.

“We call for Operation Rollback,” says Gorman. “Vote ‘no’ to the budget unless your union freezes, including step increases, or the school district freezes property taxes. If the union is not prepared to freeze, then they’re prepared to have your children lose programs, and they want you, in these desperate times, to pay more money so they can get fatter. Our answer is to let them eat their young. We’re struggling. But they want us to pay them more so they can sit in the laps of luxury as we cut back further and further and further.”

To Gorman and his allies, the teachers’ unions have “put a cloud over Long Island” and “taken the joy out of living here. They engorge themselves with richness.”

That characterization strikes one teacher in the Northport-East Northport school district as typical of today’s climate.

“People love to hate teachers. We’re the new lawyers,” he says. (His name has been withheld at his request because of his job concerns. His school board may cut 15 to 20 teachers and staff, even though the proposed budget increase is 0.83 percent, and the proposed tax rate increase is 2.18 percent, touted as the lowest in 15 years.)

“Morale is low,” he continues. “There’s gallows humor, like, ‘How do you cut education costs? Put all the teachers in a boat and sink it.’ But it’s tough for union members to stick together and feel strong in negotiating when people are afraid of losing their jobs.”

Only a few years on the job himself, he’s torn about the prospect of lay-offs.

“It’s a shame to see young, creative, excited, hungry teachers lose their jobs, and see someone who’s tenured but burned-out keep theirs,” he adds. “But how do you decide who’s good and who’s not? No one has come up with a good system to determine that.”

He wishes the pain were spread more fairly.

“You don’t often hear people ask, ‘Do we have too many administrators?’ There’s often a disconnection between the people making the decisions and the people walking the halls. From our union perspective, we’ve seen a lot of selective information presented by Newsday, the median income rather that the average. Plus, they lump the administrative salaries under the term ‘educators.’ Most teachers make well under $100,000 a year. But you’ll see these administrators getting big pensions in retirement and working as consultants pulling down a thousand dollars a week.”

Like some of his colleagues, this Northport teacher resides in the district he works in.

“My parents also live here, and they’re retired and living on a fixed budget,” he says. “It’s not realistic to see their taxes keep going up. Mine are going up, too, and I’m going to have a pay freeze. People may look at me and say, ‘Well, we’re having a pay freeze, too, so welcome to the party!’ I think most teachers are smart enough to look at the bigger picture and realize that our system is unsustainable.”

But expect this teacher to vote for his school budget.

Under New York State’s zero-percent cap on 2010-2011 contingency budgets (the back-up spending plans that kick in if the proposed budgets fail), many districts would not be allowed to increase new spending at all. Unlike past years, they definitely won’t be able to count on Albany, either. Gov. David Paterson is still wrestling with the state Legislature to close a more than $9 billion budget deficit, which means our region’s school aid might be cut by $172.6 million.

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