Thursday, April 10, 2008
Northern Westchester Bureau Chief
Determining The Real Cost Of Our Local Schools
Every spring, Westchester school districts present their budgets for the upcoming year to local residents for approval in accordance with New York State law. This year, the budgets and school board nominations must be voted on by May 20th. In order to adhere to this deadline, school districts are currently following a strict guideline, commencing with posting legal notices of the budget and the school board elections in early April. By the end of April, each district must have their board nominations and budgets ready for public reviews and hearings.
Anyone who has attended a school board budget hearing can attest that the bulk of these budgets have already been set by statutory and contractual obligations, leaving only a minute percentage up for debate in a budget hearing. Out of a school budget of tens of millions of dollars, often only a few hundred thousand dollars is on the table to be voted upon. So why have a school budget vote at all? And what is a local taxpayer to do? The Guardian reviewed some of the local school budgets currently being proposed for the 2008-2009 school year (a school year ranges from September to the following August). Westchester County has 40 school districts offering traditional educational programs and a Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) which offers county-wide vocational programs.
In addition, Westchester County has several Special Act Districts, which provide educational and therapeutic opportunities to students who have experienced difficulty in traditional school settings. Therefore, Westchester taxpayers are funding separate school districts – both local, and countywide, and the information regarding each set of budgets is developed and kept separately.
Adding to the confusion, school districts, while funded by property taxes, do not align with town property maps – a town could have several school districts, or parts of several towns could be grouped into one school district. Plus, the names of the districts and towns are often not identical – while the school district for the majority of the residents of the Town of Mt. Pleasant is known as the “Mt. Pleasant School District”, residents in neighboring Armonk have to know that they will not find information for the local schools listed under “Armonk”, but rather under “Byram Hills School District”. Residents can determine which school district their residence is located in by checking their property tax bills or by calling the tax assessor’s office at their local town hall.
While all school districts are required by New York State law to provide their budgets to local residents, some make this information more accessible than others. Most budgets can be found on the local school district website, but some districts, such as Byram Hills, only provide public hearing dates but no budget for a taxpayer to review. In those cases, the taxpayer either has to attend a public hearing or go to the school district office to obtain a copy of the proposed budget. Other districts provide at least an overview of the highlights of the budget and the proposed capitol projects and major changes for the district in the upcoming year.
But like with the town budgets that The Guardian audited this winter, the champion of providing detailed information to their residents is the Chappaqua School District. The Guardian reported in January that the Town of North Castle, the locale of the Chappaqua School District, provided “full supporting details for the budget including equipment replacement plans for each town vehicle for every year through 2015.
Town residents in North Castle, especially those on fixed incomes, can readily see when the next major increases in the town’s spending will be so they can plan accordingly”.
Chappaqua’s budget (available at www.chappaqua.k12.ny.us/ccsd) provides a breakdown by major category and that category’s percentage of total costs for easy comparison. The district then shows where the dollar increase in costs for the upcoming year is coming from, again by major category and percentage. But it’s in the details where Chappaqua’s reporting shines. The district provides enrollment numbers for the past five years and the upcoming five years so that residents can easily see that costs are increasing despite declining school enrollment. The district then breaks the enrollment and class size down by school and grade level for current and future years to illustrate how it is achieving its goal of maintaining class sizes.
Unlike most other districts, Chappaqua does not limit its public hearing to just the overall administrative budget. The district also holds two additional presentations, one for school athletics and one for Special Education. From these hearings, and the materials provided by the district online, interested residents can learn how many teams the district provides for its students, how many students participate, how the team/participation has grown, and the details of the costs involved down to coaches’ salaries. Armed with this information,
taxpayers can then ask why the football team has multiple coaches and prime playing access for a handful of students (boys only) while the co-ed track team with dozens of participants has to make do with far less.
Other school districts slip up in providing detailed information to the taxpayers. Salaries and benefits are shown as one or two line items on the overall budget with no breakdown of costs despite the fact that these two costs alone represent almost three-quarters of each district’s total annual expenditures. The BOCES budget shows employee benefits of $611,983 but retiree benefits of $4,282,926. Without detailed backup information, a taxpayer cannot determine why retirees are costing seven times more than employees. Is BOCES encouraging their administrators to beef up their retirement income? If so, who approves this? Districts explain such lack of information by noting that school
salaries and benefits are governed by negotiated contracts. But why aren’t the details of these contracts provided to the taxpayers? Since teacher salaries and benefits do indeed represent the bulk of the costs that local residents are fi-nancing in their property taxes, why aren’t the teachers’ contracts subject to a vote by the residents who will be footing the bill?
Teacher contracts are approved by local school boards but they are also bound by New York State law and by issues that were negotiated by the statewide teachers union. The powerful New York City teachers’ union was instrumental in negotiating the annual school holidays that are now reflected in our local school contracts – explaining why a predominately Catholic community has a plethora of Jewish holidays every September and October while a school with a large Asian community has no school closings for Buddhist or Muslim holidays on its school calendar. State union contracts and laws not only hamper local budgets, but they do not allow local districts to adopt a school calendar to
reflect and honor the makeup of its own community.
Despite having over 100 school holidays (including summer break), teachers are entitled to time off during the school year for training, meetings, and even for union activity. The day after Governor Patterson was sworn into office (Tuesday, March 18 – a school day), 770 teachers left their schools to march on Albany to protest property tax caps. The New York State Teachers’ Union (NYSUT) is also currently backing the passage of a 55/25 pension bill which would allow any teacher with 25 years of work to retire at age 55 with full
benefits! Should these inflated pension benefits become law, each school district would then have to increase their pension funding to cover the extra cost of the earlier-than-projected retirements and benefits (at full, rather than partial rates). In addition, each district would also have to factor into its budget the salaries, benefits, and training costs for the teachers needed to replace the unexpected retirees. The NYSUT has drafted a letter on this issue to NYS representatives and is urging all of its members to sign and forward it to Albany. This, at a time when most local residents are looking at retiring in their 70’s, if at all!
Pensions are only one of the statutory and contractual benefits constricting the development of school budgets. Health insurance is another major concern. School administrators will voice at the budget hearings that health insurance costs are skyrocketing and imply that there is nothing they can do. But what the budgets do not reveal is how unfair the assignment of the cost of these benefits to the taxpayers is.
Many local residents do not have health insurance or have to finance the cost of their medical coverage themselves. Yet union contracts, including teachers’ contracts, mandate that health insurance is not only provided and subsidized for the employee, but also for their family. So conceivably a local taxpayer, who foots an $1,600 a month bill for medical coverage for his/her own family, is also footing a $10,000 a year school tax bill to subsidize health insurance for not only the teachers, but their family members to boot! Worse, the homeowner can
only deduct a percentage of their medical insurance costs on their income tax returns, whereas the teachers, and their families, are receiving their health insurance tax-free!
As the health insurance crisis worsens, and more and more taxpayers either have to subsidize or pay for their insurance in full, this inequity will increase. One way to reduce the schools’ health insurance costs is for local districts to provide subsidized coverage for employees only. If teachers/school employees want health insurance for their spouses/families, they should have to finance the full costs of that insurance themselves. Taxpayers should ask their school boards how much money is being spent to fund health insurance for individuals (such as family members) who are not employees of the district.
Forcing taxpayers to fund the benefits of non-employees is akin to taxation without representation. New York State should also revise its tax laws to assess income taxes based on an employee’s total compensation, including benefits, to eliminate this tax inequity. Or allow taxpayers who pay for their own benefits to deduct these costs in full from their taxable income. There are other statutory items that taxpayers are financing in these budgets that have nothing to do with their local public schools and even some items that go far beyond the scope of the statutes governing them. Section 3635 of the New York State Education Law requires all non-city districts to provide transportation
for pupils enrolled in kindergarten through grade 8 who live more than two miles from the school they attend and for pupils enrolled in grades 9 – 12 who live more than three miles from the school they attend. Yet many Westchester schools provide transportation to students who live well within these limits, even picking up door-to-door for able-bodied students! If New York State has determined that students can walk to school within reasonable limits, why, especially given global warming and rising gas prices, are local districts providing buses for short distances?
In addition, local school districts are providing bus transportation to students who do not attend their schools at all! Additional provisions of Section 3635 mandate that bus transportation, when it is provided, must be offered to students of non-public (i.e. private and parochial) schools and districts may offer busing to students attending private after-school and day-care programs. Again, this is akin to taxation without representation. If a resident chooses not to send their child to the school provided by the taxpayers, it is within their rights not to do so. But why then are the local taxpayers expected to subsidize the private schools and day-care centers, schools and facilities they did not vote for, by providing their transportation? If those schools and facilities expect the use of local tax dollars to fund their transportation, then the local taxpayers must be given a voice in the administration and governance of those institutions.
The state also permits student “double-dipping” – a program referred to as “Dual Enrollment”. Using the above example, a local parent may decide to send their child to a parochial school for the religious environment. Despite federal laws governing the separation of church and state, our local school budgets subsidize these religious institutions by providing the tax-funded transportation for their students. But, in addition, under Section 3602-c of New York State Education Law, pupils in non-public schools may also enroll in public school programs!
Since parochial and private schools often lack facilities to cater to occupational, gifted, or handicapped students, a child attending those schools (by their choice!), may also attend the local public school to access these programs there. So local taxpayers must, by law, fund the cost to transport these students to their private schools and also foot the bill to transport them back to the public schools for the extra programs.
Taxpayers even have to foot the bills for students who do not attend school at all. New York State established a textbook, computer software, and library materials lending program for all schools. The intent was to have the state board of education purchase these materials in bulk to achieve cost savings, and then farm these materials out to local schools at the reduced cost. However, this program has now been expanded to include private and parochial schools and even to students who are home-schooled. Taxpayers need to ask their school boards
how much of their tax dollars are subsidizing the costs of students who are not attending local schools at all.
New York State has the highest cost per student in the nation – over $20,000 a year per student in some Westchester districts. Some parents opt for sending their child to a school outside of their district. In such instances, that school will bill the parents for the cost of their child’s education so its local taxpayers will not have to foot the bill for a non-resident. In other cases, parents will opt to send their child out of the district to obtain special-needs education. In those situations, the residential district will often have to foot the bill, both for the cost of the student’s education at the other school, and also the cost of providing the transportation to that school. Taxpayers should ask how many out-of-district students are paying tuition to their district, and how many students are attending out-of-district schools that the school has to pay for. In the first case, the district may have a popular education program that is attracting outside revenue. In the second case, the school might need to consider offering the special education program itself to reduce costs or may want to review how lenient its policies are
allowing parents to transfer their children out of the district.
Given such phenomenal costs, school districts do try to keep a tight rein over offering school services to local residents only. Most school districts audit their enrollments to make sure that all children attending the local schools actually live in the district since not all parents and guardians are honest about their situations. Parents who cannot afford to live in a community with a highly-ranked school may use a fictitious address or the address of a relative who lives in that district to avoid paying the annual five-figure tuition bill per child. Yet many residents with children attending local schools contribute nothing to the cost of those schools. Schools are funded mainly through local property
taxes so even renters will absorb these costs since property taxes will be passed through to them in their rent. But individuals who live in illegal apartments are not funding local schools since these apartments are not assessed on the property tax rolls to begin with. Therefore, taxpayers must ask their school boards to ascertain that all students are legal residents of the district. Do the school auditors match the addresses on the property tax rolls with the students’ addresses? And does the local tax assessor’s office match the school enrollments
with their records to catch the tax dodgers? When enrolling a new student, does the school require legal verification of their identity and address? Does the school request verification for any “moves”?
Given the extraordinary cost per student in our area, no taxpayer should be expected to foot the bill for a student who is not a legal resident of their district. Each school district’s budget will be unique to that school and could comprise new programs, changes in enrollment, construction of facilities, and staff-ing issues. There are several organizations to assist parents and taxpayers in understanding the complexity of school administration. Two resources The Guardian referred to for this article are: Great Schools.net, and the National Parent Teacher Association (PTA.org). Each site lists questions and issues concerning school budgets. Albany has already slashed increases in state aid to local districts to only 2% this year, despite double-digit increases in some districts for insurance and fuel. State Senator Kemp Hannon, Garden City, warned in a meeting concerning education funding that “New York could be facing a return to 1991 when the Legislature was forced to make mid-year budget cuts”. If that turns out to be the case, then even the double-digit tax increases projected for the current proposed school budgets will not be sufficient.
Northern Westchester Round-Up
Briarcliff: The local high school girl’s basketball team won the Class-B Federation championship in Glens Falls. Briarcliff is the first girl’s team to win a Federation championship in fourteen years.
Greenburgh: Police are questioning Scott Desimone of Hawthorne in the hit and-run accident in Elmsford last month which killed a local father of five. Desimone’s vehicle, a light-blue Mazda, was found by police in a nearby auto repair shop with front-end damage. A front
fender from a Mazda was found at the scene of the accident.
Somers: A student at Lincoln Hall admitted he sexually attacked his counselor last fall. The student, 17-year-old Marcus Fraser, faces a
maximum of fifteen years in jail for the felony charge.
Valhalla: An audit of the Valhalla School District by the State Comptroller’s office revealed $456,400 of local grants that were handled improperly. According to the audit, the district did not spend the funds in accordance with the requirements of the grants, failed to follow state bidding guidelines, and overpaid employee insurance premiums.