Rainy Days and Pay Days
One thing almost every school district has done this year to limit budget increases is go into its “rainy day” fund, its unrestricted reserves. Massapequa, for example, has more than $30 million on tap.
School budget opponents object to these stockpiles—arguing the funds’ very existence are evidence of overtaxing and under-spending.
“Where did these reserves come from?” asks LIFER’S Gorman. “The budget is deliberately overfunded!”
NYS Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli reports schools statewide have socked away $600 million in restricted reserves, such as funds for unpaid sick leave or workers’ compensation claims, and the Legislature is talking about prying the money loose, but so far nothing has happened. A spokesman for the comptroller’s office says “audits found that certain districts were overfunding reserves, and at the same time they were raising taxes.”
Jay Breakstone, president of the Nassau-Suffolk School Boards Association and a member of the Bellmore School Board, sees a double standard in critics’ arguments, however.
“You can’t fault somebody for keeping a reserve and at the same time tell them to use the reserve. It’s just inconsistent,” he explains. “A reserve is a rainy day fund and it is pouring!”
Wendell Chu, the East Islip Union Free School District superintendent and president of the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association, concurs with that forecast.
“As school leaders, we are charged with being fiscally prudent,” he explains, “and part of fiscal prudence is planning. What some people would suggest is that unless we spend every dime we’re not being fiscally prudent. But the reality is that if we had not done some of the things that we did in order to prepare for a day like this, then tax rates would be through the roof.
“Most people want some consistency, not huge spikes in the tax rate,” he continues. “Our board is proposing a 2.66 percent change in the tax levy, and we’re applying reserve funds. We’ve gone to our bargaining units for help and they have provided it. Everybody’s pitching in because they recognize the severity of the situation this year.”
(Interestingly, if the proposed budget is rejected, the tax levy for the contingency budget in East Islip would be higher: 4.4 percent.)
Budgets and Ballots
About 25 percent of New Jersey’s registered voters went to the polls on April 20; normally about 15 percent do. On Long Island, the turnout’s usually been less than 20 percent. In fact, Brentwood Teachers Association President Hogan uses his own district’s lackluster voting pattern in his social studies classes.
“Brentwood has 25,000 registered voters,” he says, “and if we get 2,600 to come out, we’ll be lucky.” Hogan thinks one reason the turnout has been low is that the people in his district are conflicted: They support education deeply but they are frustrated that they can’t readily afford it. “People would rather not come out and vote against what they really believe in,” he explains.
Efforts to suppress the turnout influenced Andrea Vecchio, once a teacher’s aide in Stony Brook, to co-found East Islip Tax-Pac, a group of residents opposing school budget increases.
“One day in East Islip I saw kids putting up flyers in the stores, and the signs said: ‘If you can’t vote ‘yes,’ don’t vote!’ And I thought that’s a terrible thing to say,” she tells the Press. A leading activist, she went on to become a legislative aide to former Suffolk County Legislator Joseph Rizzo, serving three years on the bi-county commission to explore alternatives to the property tax. “School spending could be controlled. It could be so much less than it is now.”
Former member of the East Meadow school board Martin Hollander has heard these arguments for years.
“There’s always a contingent of people who say taxes are too high, and we have to cut expenses,” he says. “But education is labor intensive, and it’s very difficult to not only cut expenses but to contain the increase. You’re always going to need personnel. There simply is no way of turning over education to machines.”
He rejects the contention that teachers should earn far less than they do. “No matter how aggressive and offensive the union was when I was on the board,” he recalls from his six-year stint in the 1980s, “I never felt that teachers were overpaid, which was often a frequent argument of people who resented their tax rates. Teachers are a valuable social asset; they contribute. If you look at these obscene compensation rates on Wall Street, where people are just moving money from one end of the room to the other, I really don’t see any contribution to the social commonwealth from those guys.”
Hollander has a jaundiced view of why school budget turnouts are so low: “I got the impression that for most parents, their kids’ education stopped at the sixth grade unless their kids were on varsity teams,” he says. “The pressure brought by parents on behalf of athletics, particularly football and basketball, was often really intense. From time to time, I often wondered what really was important for these people: the education of their kids or their performance on a field. If something came up at a public school board meeting about the curriculum, hardly anyone would ever show up. Once there was an athletic director for the whole district who wanted more money and the school board had turned him down. At the next meeting there was an overflow crowd.”
Hollander also remains skeptical about school budgets.
“On an annual basis the administration gave us a budget that was inflated,” he explains. “The administration knew what was obtainable, and would pad the budget, and then be totally prepared for the cuts the board would make. There was always a little bit of slack, and if the budget was defeated in the first round, we would trim it even further, but not by much, usually by deferring expenses, like the purchase of chairs. And if the budget went down on the first vote, the people who actually had kids in the school would come out en masse on the second try. Whereas, on the first round senior citizens would come out in large numbers.”
The budget vote is “sort of a farce,” says Cliff Sondock, president of the Land Use Institute, a Long Island think tank founded in 2004 to propound the free market philosophy of conservative economist Milton Friedman.