Thursday, January 15, 2009

Westchester Guardian/Catherine Wilson.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Catherine Wilson, Bureau Chief
Northern Westchester

State, and Local School Board React
To Guardian Article on Lack of
Administrative Controls

In early November, we published an article concerning the lack of proper administrative procedures in our local school districts. In that article, we noted how one district’s lack of compliance with state-mandated controls, Mt. Pleasant, adversely affected the lives of the young players on their high school soccer team by stripping them of their championship rankings due to a series of inept clerical errors and total lack of administrative controls and reviews.

We can now report that there have been two recent significant developments in that story. First, the school district superintendent, Dr. Alfred Lodovico, recently resigned his position, effective as of December 31, 2008. Readers may recall that Dr. Lodovico issued a curt response to the Guardian in November, dismissing our FOIL request for the district’s administrative policies and procedures: “THIS SOCCER ISSUE IS A PERSONNEL MATTER. NOTHING MORE THAN WAS DISCUSSED AT LAST NIGHT’S MEETING IS APPROPRIATE”.

As we noted in our article, the use of “all caps” in business communications is considered to be the equivalent of shouting. But we also questioned “why is an experienced educator dictating to a journalist what is, or is not, ‘appropriate’ to report?” The official board announcement of Dr. Lodovico’s “retirement” was sent to parents in the district during the December school break. Since his “retirement”
was effective December 31, 2008, before the school term recommenced, the district deftly avoided the usual elaborate sendoffs that generally accompany superintendent retirements and any further interactions between Lodovico and the district’s parents and students.

Planning for retirement is not something that happens overnight. Dr. Lodovico would have probably known for some time if he was really thinking of retiring this year. In addition, most school administrators and teachers time their retirements with the end of the school year in June, not for December, or any other month, since they do not wish to disrupt the education of the students entrusted to their care. In addition, Dr. Lodovico served the Mt. Pleasant school district for 29 years and undoubtedly developed many relationships in the school district during that time. Therefore, had he truly been planning on retiring in December, the official announcement would most likely
have been made while school was still in session, allowing the staff/teachers, parents, students, and Dr. Lodovico himself, an opportunity
to “say goodbye”. Instead, the official district announcement was made after Lodovico had already left, a telling sign.

Even the announcement headline itself from the school district was disingenuous: “Dr. Lodovico to retire from district”. Any parent or student who did not read the smaller print in the notice would be forgiven for assuming Dr. Lodovico had not retired yet and would be staying until the end of the school year, as is the usual custom.

In the same newsletter to local residents, the district made an off-handed acknowledgement to the soccer incident noting in a small blurb, “The boys’ soccer team played heads-up ball all season but unfortunately had to forfeit post-season play”. The district did not take any
official responsibility for the fact that the incident was entirely their fault. Had anyone in the district and school administration noticed
that one of the players was 20 years of age, and therefore too old according to long-established BOCES rules for high school sports,
the undefeated soccer team would have been league champions in November, instead of disheartened teenagers, stripped of their athletic records; teenagers who put their misguided trust into inept officials; officials who did not even have the decency to offer an official apology to them “on the record”.

What is the school district teaching their students with that attitude and behavior? If you do wrong never admit it, but rather gloss it over with a coy statement? In addition to Dr. Lodovico’s quick departure, the New York State Comptroller’s office just noti-fied the Mt. Pleasant schools that they will be conducting a three-month audit of their district in the upcoming months. The school board announced that this audit is merely “required by law”. However the school board president, Marisa Carbone, did not inform the parents of the other legal requirements
of the State Comptroller’s office, many of which the district appears to be lacking in compliance with:

• Training of school board members on financial oversight responsibilities;

• Establishment of an internal audit function in each school district;

• Creation of an Audit Committee

• A competitive process for selecting external auditors;

• Improvement of the effectiveness of external audits, including increased testing, rigorous corrective action plans, and realignment of the claims audit function, directly reporting to the school board. As we noted in our article in November, ‘Dr. Lodovico admitted in a closed-door school board meeting [that this reporter attended] that the “policies and procedures for [this] function were not documented”. Documenting
policies and procedures for all functions is one of the basic tenets of internal controls. If the District adopted the five points in State Comptroller Hevesi’s plan, it would have established an internal auditor. A basic audit would have revealed the lack of documentation.

So why, four years after the state laws mandating them, do our schools still not have even elementary internal controls?’ We promised our readers to find out. We have already contacted the state auditors with a request for their findings in this audit. We shall keep our readers informed as to the results of the state audit and any other developments in this case.

SUNY Tuition Hikes

In our November article on school accountability, we reported on how Westchester Community College, State University of New York, was not tracking which students were legal New York State residents. Only legal New York residents are entitled to the state subsidies that allow them to pay reduced tuition rates. New York has one of the lowest state university tuition rates in the nation, making it very attractive to out-of-state and foreign students. However, by allowing non-legal state residents to benefit from the state subsidies, it places an unfair burden on state taxpayers.

Given the current economic conditions, that is a burden the state, local taxpayers, and the SUNY campuses themselves, can no longer bear.
In addition to looming budget cuts, the SUNY schools have also been affected by the recent dramatic drops in the stock market. In November, the SUNY trustees announced that the value of the state university endowment funds plunged 12.8 percent between June and September alone, for a $54 million loss. The endowment funds suffered further losses in October and November. The SUNY Tuition Hikes
combination of the poor economy and declining investments has led SUNY university presidents to make a recent unprecedented united
call for immediate tuition hikes, effective as students step back onto campuses this week.

The presidents are calling for 25% tuition hikes, from $4,350 a year to $5,440, for the four-year colleges such as SUNY Purchase. Students at SUNY Purchase immediately staged a protest informing Governor Paterson that “we are tired of being treated like pawns”. However, those students failed to note that, despite dramatic rising education costs over the past decade, SUNY schools have not imposed any tuition hikes whatsoever since 2002! In short, those able-bodied teens have been receiving increasing subsidies each year from local taxpayers, many of
whom never had the luxury of attending college at all.

Is a $5,440 a year tuition really so onerous that SUNY students should legitimately be protesting? The average state university tuition
charged nationwide in 2007 was $6,185, with some states charging their residents over $8,400 to attend local schools. Even with the current increase, SUNY tuition is still far below the national average, meaning New York State taxpayers are still disproportionally subsidizing the SUNY students; students who could conceivably work to pay this tuition. At a mere $10 an hour, a student could easily earn $150 to $200 per week towards their tuition during the school year, 26 weeks, for a total of $5,200. Working fulltime during school breaks, the student
could easily earn an additional $10,400 for a total of $15,600 per year. Even factoring in taxes, this is more than enough to cover tuition,
books, fees, and personal expenses, and most of the room and board costs for those students who opt to live on campus.

The Guardian uncovered local computer students from SUNY Binghamton who earn far more during a school year, charging businesses and individuals $75 an hour to set up websites and repair computers, often receiving this income in cash, thereby avoiding paying taxes at all, taxes that could have been used by New York State to help finance their educations. Such students are making over $30,000 a year tax free, while enjoying the subsidies of local taxpayers. So why should New York State taxpayers who are currently struggling to recover their retirement investments, be asked to subsidize young students at a far higher rate than the rest of the nation, especially when these students
only need to work a minimum of hours per week to pay SUNY tuition costs in full?

Putting this issue in perspective, local Para-transit users are being asked to contribute more to their transportation costs in 2009, and many of those individuals are severely handicapped. The Guardian reported last November that the disabled community has a 70% unemployment rate. Yet these individuals are being asked to contribute more out of their fixed disability checks to offset taxpayer subsidies, out of incomes that amount to far less than what these young students can hope to earn.

The situation is even rosier at the state community colleges. Westchester Community College charges a mere $1,775 per semester for
tuition and is showing no increase in this tuition at all for the Spring of 2009. As a community college, it is subsidized by the County, so local taxpayers bear most of this burden. Again, why aren’t able-bodied students being charged more since they only need a few days of work
to cover these fees in full?

Since non-legal New York State residents are charged over $4,400 per semester, why isn’t WCC identifying these students and charging
them accordingly, relieving local taxpayers of the burden of subsidizing students who are not even legal New York State residents? New York State, and Westchester County, are already far more generous to state students, above the national average. According to the College Board, since 2000, other states raised their tuition 40%. New York State only had one tuition hike during this period, in 2002. Given such statistics, the student protests appear to be unfounded to local taxpayers.

As one County resident noted to the Guardian “if they [the SUNY Purchase students] have time to protest, they have time to work”. Added to this mix is the amount of state aid that New York State offers college students. In Governor Paterson’s initial proposal for increasing
SUNY tuition, he offered a tuition hike of only $600 per year to generate an additional $199 million in revenues. However, Paterson
also increased the funding for state aid to college students from $15 million to $44 million. So many of those protesting students could actually be receiving more money from the state this semester to off-set their tuition increases entirely. Not everyone is unhappy with
the SUNY tax hikes. Students in private colleges have been bearing a dramatically increasing financial burden for their educations for well
over a decade. Those students pay an average of $23,712 nationwide in annual tuition costs alone in 2007, according to College Board.

Students pursuing a unique course of study, or interested in groundbreaking areas of scientific and medical research, often have no option than to attend a private college. A private education, however, does not guarantee a higher income upon graduation, so those students bear a disproportionate burden of their educations for another ten years in repayments of student loans. In addition, children of divorced parents in New York State are burdened with the dreaded “SUNY cap”, a state law that actually limits the amount of higher-education child support to be paid to the amount of a SUNY tuition, regardless of what the tuition costs at the private school are. This law has not been amended to keep pace with the disproportionate increases in costs in private schools as compared to SUNY schools.

New York State child support laws are out of step with many other states on this issue. New York State laws allow for parents to escape their education obligations entirely at age 21, even though most students are still in their junior year of college at that age, facing the student to either incur enormous debts for their final year, or drop out, wasting three years of education entirely.

New Jersey now mandates that child support for education must continue for all four years of college, preventing the likelihood of a student dropping out of college due to lack of parental support, if a parent actually has to be taken to court to obtain child support for college to begin with, an individual deservedly referred to as a “deadbeat parent” in the courts, such a parent will undoubtedly take advantage of the lax New York State laws and escape their obligations the day their children turn 21. Such students are relieved that SUNY tuition charges will now be slightly more representative of actual higher education costs since it will mean that their child support will now be increased in line with SUNY tuition hikes.

In the 2008-2009 WCC budget, the County’s community college estimates it will cost over $122 million to operate. Of this, only $42 million
will be collected in tuition and $56 million will be received in state and federal aid and other revenue sources, meaning Westchester County taxpayers will have to subsidize this college to the tune of $24 million. WCC has over 27,000 students in both credit and non-credit classes,
so local taxpayers are subsidizing these students at $900 each. Since WCC reports that over 70% of their students work full time, why can’t
WCC increase their tuition by $900 a year per student, thereby eliminating the need for the $24 million County subsidy at all? In addition,
WCC is not charging its students full tuition to begin with – using their reported $42 million total collected tuition revenues, this equates to only $1,500 per student, below the $1,775 in-state tuition and far below the $4,438 listed as tuition charges for non-legal New York State residents. Perhaps if WCC pursued identifying the non-legal New York State residents, and charged them full out-of-state fees, they could eliminate their $24 million subsidy from the County taxpayers?

As Governor Paterson noted in his budget address to the New York State Legislature last month, there are many ways for the state to cut back on costs and the tax burden to residents without affecting servicing. Asking young, able-bodied students to share the burden of their own education is one such possibility. This reporter is a parent of a college-age student who returned to campus this week with three (loving) words of advice: “get a job!”

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