“It’s really a perfunctory vote because by law, if the budget doesn’t get approved, there’s automatically a contingency budget that gets approved,” he explains. “When you vote against the budget, it’s really more of a symbolic protest, which is really unfortunate. Most of the operating policies of the school districts are mandated by the state, and the state mandates are very much influenced by the teachers’ unions.”
“The whole thing is really rotten to the core,” adds Vecchio of Tax-Pac. “If we could make a budget vote count, and make a ‘no’ vote a no again, there’s a possibility we could get a handle on what we’re really spending. The problem is that money is being wasted in the billions.”
Verifying that claim is hard to do. Of course, it’s very easy for voters to see that overall, the school budgets continue to outpace inflation.
“How many corporate budgets go up 5 to 6 percent annually in expenditures?” asks a member of a school district finance committee in Nassau, who asked not to be identified. “Usually school districts like to confuse people. They don’t talk about year-over-year actual savings. They only talk about savings over inflated budgets. What people should do is be able to vote on every contract. So, if you approve this contract, say, then you’re approving giving the teachers a 2 percent raise. But that’s not how it works. The districts bury the money in their reserves, and then they’ll give the teachers a 2 percent raise and say it’s budget neutral. They squirrel away the money and do whatever they want.”
So, will Long Island follow New Jersey’s lead and slam down the majority of school budgets? Not necessarily, say other experts.
“I know that many in the education establishment are afraid of a tsunami,” explains Lawrence Levy, executive director of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University and a former Newsday columnist. “But I wouldn’t be surprised if the number of budget defeats isn’t much worse than normal years when you’ll maybe see eight or nine go down. I think the school districts have done a demonstrably good job at keeping increases under or at the rate of inflation. Some districts have extracted concessions from their unions that are unprecedented.”
Levy believes voters will, by and large, approve the budget increases.
“Everybody on Long Island knows that Albany is dysfunctional and these are very tough times,” he says. “But they’re willing to give the benefit of the doubt to those officials who seem to be trying to do the right thing of balancing the kids’ education and the need to keep taxes low.”
Chu, the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association president, doesn’t expect a wave of rejections, either.
“Most communities recognize that school districts have really made a tremendous effort to try to maintain as low a school budget this year as possible,” he says. “I don’t think there’s a single school leader, whether on the school board or part of the district administration, who doesn’t know that the times we’re in are very difficult.”
Breakstone, the Nassau-Suffolk School Boards Association president, doesn’t buy the Jersey comparison.
“It’s such a different situation,” he says. “New Jersey has a history of defeating its budgets. The teachers in New Jersey do not contribute at all to their medical insurance. I think the average contribution here is between 16 and 20 percent.”
Nor does Breakstone believe the voters are so angry they’ll resoundingly reject school budgets across the Island. “The mood was pretty bad last year,” he says, “and only two school districts on Long Island were forced to go on contingency budgets: Patchogue-Medford and Shoreham-Wading River. You have to look at each school district individually. You can’t generalize about school budgets.”
Vincent Lyons, Suffolk regional staff director for NYS United Teachers, hopes “reason wins over emotion,” he tells the Press.
“In our opinion, school districts have cut their budgets down to the bare bones,” Lyons says. “We’re looking at a 1 percent increase statewide, and that’s pretty much in keeping with the low inflation rate. School districts have tried their darnedest to keep this year’s school budgets within constraints and that’s why voters would be foolish to turn them down.”
Seizing the Moment
So while whether there will be a budget-vote shutdown akin to the Garden State’s remains an open argument, across the board, from policy makers to property owners, everyone seems to agree the present education funding system is broken, and the time to fix it is now.
“It looks like New Jersey might be a few steps ahead of us because they realize they’ve hit the iceberg and we might still be in denial,” explains John Cameron, chairman of the Long Island Regional Planning Council. “I’m not sure our leadership in Albany gets it yet. I do believe that unless we turn the tide here, we will face a wall that we’re not going to be able to get over. We need to change the model here on the Island. We’re spending more than we’re taking in, and we can’t continue business as usual.
“Six months ago, we realized that unless we do something about property taxes, we’re not going to have a chance at sustainability,” he adds. “Our objective is not to come out and launch rockets and derail school budgets. We have a much bigger agenda.”
Under the auspices of the Planning Council a group of politicians, civic leaders and educators have been hammering out a report on school financing reform that they hope to release next month, an outgrowth of the council’s LI 2035 sustainability plan.
Among the ideas being bandied about: looking for greater cost savings in school employees’ health insurance; redressing the state’s unrealistic funding formula so it acknowledges that a dollar spent upstate does not go as far as it does on Long Island; and addressing unfunded state mandates, particularly in special education.
Another proposal suggests letting school districts buy directly from the national power grid rather than going through the Long Island Power Authority, which might save money on energy. Also on the table is consideration of school district consolidation, devising some legislative incentives in cost sharing to make it more desirable and the quality of education more equal.
Levy, Hofstra’s suburban expert, who’s been a participant in these meetings, is cautiously optimistic some of the proposals the working group has discussed could lead to “longer term and broader changes that could maintain the quality of education and reduce its costs,” he says. “At least you have to hope so!
“Because if all we do is make a few cuts here and there to get through the current situation, we will have wasted a major opportunity for sweeping and fundamental change.”