Archive for May, 2009

DiNapoli reports big drop in ERS pension fund, proposes smoothing employer rate increases

May 30th, 2009 by Robert Lowry

On Friday, State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli reported that the value of the State’s “Common Retirement Fund” has shrunk by 36 percent over the fiscal year ending March 31st.  These are the investments held by the State and Local Government Employees Retirement System (ERS).

Comptroller DiNapoli said that the drop would necessitate a steep increase in the contribution rate paid by public employers, including state and local governments and school districts.  Currently, public employers pay a rate equal to about 7.5 percent of payroll; the Comptroller said the contribution rate will likely need to rise to 11 percent by 2011.

About 20 percent of school employees are in ERS; most are in the Teachers Retirement System.  TRS’s investment year runs through June 30th.  It will announce earnings performance and contribution rate changes this summer or fall. Read the rest of this entry »

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Voter support for tax cap remains high

May 27th, 2009 by Robert Lowry

School districts succeeded this year in holding proposed local tax increases to their lowest level in seven years despite the weakest state aid increase in six years.  But support for a property tax cap remains high, according to a new Siena College poll.

Gannett newspapers report that 72 percent favor capping school property taxes, with 20 percent opposed.

The dates of the survey (May 18-21) included last Tuesday’s school budget votes and board elections.  Those votes produced new records for the percent of budgets passed (97 percent) and share of votes cast in favor of school budgets (65 percent).

The survey also asked for positions on a circuit-breaker which would provide state tax credits to limit the share of income that taxpayers would pay in property taxes.  Voters support a circuit-breaker by a 65 to 26 percent margin.

The survey also included questions on upcoming statewide elections, the direction of the state and nation, and approval of Governor Paterson’s job performance.

The 65 percent share of voters supporting their school budgets would be an enviable approval rating for almost any politician.

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Time for phys ed?

May 27th, 2009 by Robert Lowry

Over the weekend the Albany Times Union got around to reporting on a State Comptroller’s audit released back in December on school district compliance with physical education mandates.

It noted that 19 of 20 districts studied in the audit were not providing enough time for physical education to satisfy the requirements of regulations adopted in 1982.

Responding to the audit, one local district wrote, “The fact that 95 percent of your statewide audit sample did not meet the 1982 regulations implies the regulations need to be re-evaluated.  Elementary phys ed regulations lack the flexibility districts need in order to meet both phys ed requirements and ever-higher standards and expectations for students’ English and math achievement in particular.”

The TU noted, “The district asked why a teaching assistant, being supervised by a certified teacher, can give lessons in English, math, science and other subjects but not physical education.  ‘We face the very real possibility that we could be forced to cut regular classroom teachers while hiring more phy ed teachers – an option that could anger many parents and residents,’ the administrators wrote.

Reacting to various legislative proposals for new instructional mandates, we typically note that time is the most precious commodity for schools and that mandating more time for any topic necessitates schools spending less time on something else.  This inescapable mathematical reality does elude many people.

Today’s Times Union has an editorial which faults schools for “skimping on gym,” but to the author’s credit,  it also recommends that the state take a fresh look at its mandates.

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School votes: New high in yes vote share; overall turnout down again

May 22nd, 2009 by Robert Lowry

Two weeks ago I offered some gloomy speculation about possible outcomes of school budget votes.  I cautioned that I tend to be an eternal pessimist on elections, and noted this disposition has advantages — it’s hard to be disappointed and easy to be pleasantly surprised.

Once again, my hopes have been exceeded.  As previously reported, voters approved 97.3 percent of school budgets on Tuesday, a new record. Read the rest of this entry »

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Cuomo proposal on local government consolidation seems likely to pass

May 21st, 2009 by Robert Lowry

Back in December, State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo outlined a proposal to promote consolidation of local governments.  It was an excerise in creative leadership, reaching beyond the usual activities of his office, and won extensive praise.

During a meeting of the Governor and Legislative Leaders on Tuesday, several participants expressed support for the Attorney General’s effort.  For example, Democratic Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver announced that he and Assembly Republican Leader Brian Kolb would co-sponsor a bill to implement the recommendations.

Today on Long Island, Attorney General Cuomo unveiled his detailed legislative proposal and drew support from a bi-partisan cast of Suffolk County political and civic leaders.

The bill would not mandate consolidation and would not touch school districts at all. Read the rest of this entry »

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“The public has very little information about school budgets” — Really?

May 21st, 2009 by Robert Lowry

In a couple of the articles last week about the Empire Center’s data dump of school district payrolls, a Center staff person was quoted, “When it comes time to vote on a school budget, the public has very little information.”


It perturbs me that any media source would repeat this assertion without challenge.  So I wrote a letter to the Albany Times Union; it ran today.

It’s hard for me to believe  there is any institution, public or private, that makes more information available to the public than New York’s school districts.

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Uh-oh, state revenues coming up short

May 20th, 2009 by Robert Lowry

Yesterday, State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli issued his monthly “cash report” for state government for April.  He announced that general Fund revenues came in $239 million (almost 5 percent) below levels projected for the the budget enacted that same month.

The Governor’s Office initially minimized any concerns, noting that spending was also below projections, by $179 million, putting overall state finances about where projected.

But today, the Governor indulged in some thinking out-loud to speculate that the Legislature may need to consider mid-year budget cuts of as much as $3 billion.  Then his office downplayed the the Governor’s comments as just a guess. Read the rest of this entry »

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Council statement on record school budget passage rate

May 20th, 2009 by Robert Lowry

May 20, 2009
New York State Council of School Superintendents

NYS school superintendents grateful for voters’ record support of school budgets

ALBANY, NY – May 20, 2009 – Based upon newspaper reports from across the state, it appears that voters approved over 97 percent of school budgets yesterday. That would be a new record.

The previous high was 95.3 percent in 2007.

“Developing proposed budgets every year requires superintendents and boards to balance what schoolchildren need with what taxpayers can afford,” said Dr. Thomas Rogers, executive director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents. “The choices were especially hard this year,” he added.

Rogers noted, “This year, school leaders proposed budgets with the lowest statewide average tax increase in seven years, despite the lowest assistance from increased state aid in six years.”

“When state aid does not increase, local property taxpayers are forced to pay both the local and state shares of inflation,” Rogers explained. In 2003-04, the last comparably difficult year for state aid, proposed local tax increases averaged 10 percent.

This year’s state budget freezes Foundation Aid, meaning most districts are receiving no additional state help in paying for increases in teacher salaries, health insurance premiums, utility bills, or other general costs.

“School districts are uniquely accountable to the public,” Rogers went on. “Only local libraries share the requirement to seek voter approval for annual operating budgets every year. No other municipal, county or state budget requires such transparency or such direct local control. That process requires school leaders to be attentive to the concerns of both school parents and taxpayers.”

Rogers added, “We are all coping with most worrisome economic climate in at least a generation. With that backdrop, we are especially appreciative of the voters’ support this year. We will continue to do our best to balance our responsibilities to schoolchildren and taxpayers.”

“We are also deeply grateful to Senator Schumer, Senator Gillibrand, the New York delegation in the House of Representatives, and President Obama for the support provided through the federal stimulus plan,” Rogers added. “Without that aid, the state’s commitment to the Foundation Formula amounts for schools would have been even further reduced, and school leaders would have been required to make more painful choices in assembling their local budgets.”

-30 –

Robert Lowry
Deputy Director

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School budget approvals may approach record

May 20th, 2009 by Robert Lowry

The results of yesterday’s school budget votes appear to be exceptionally good. Based on newspaper reports, we may have a new record passage rate (above 95 percent).

Here’s a sampling of results, identifying districts with defeated budgets by newspaper territory:

Newsday (Long Island): Only 3 defeated. No final results from at least one district.

Journal News (Westchester, Rockland, Putnam): Preliminarily, only two budgets defeated; one district still counting

Middletown: All budgets passed

Kingston: “Perfect night” for school budgets

Poughkeepsie: All Dutchess budgets passed

Albany: three budgets rejected; some results not in

Plattsburgh: Only one budget defeated

Utica: Four defeated

Binghamton:  One budget defeated, all others seem to have passed

Ithaca: All Tompkins County budgets passed

Syracuse: All Onondaga, Cayuga, and Oswego budgets passed

Watertown: All budgets pass

Rochester: All districts passed, except one result nullified by ballot error

Buffalo: All districts passed

No results posted in Jamestown or Olean paapers as of 8:30 am.

We will have a more formal compilation and commentary later in the day.

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Charter schools — public or not?

May 18th, 2009 by Robert Lowry

Under a 2005 state law, every school district and BOCES in the state is due to be audited by the State Comptroller at least once by March 31, 2010.

That same law requires the Comptroller to also audit every charter school in the same time span.  But the statewide Charter School Association is disputing the Comptroller’s authority in court.  They won in State Supreme Court but lost in the Appellate Division.  Eventually the matter will be resolved by the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court.

Writing in Monday’s Buffalo News, Joe Williams, executive director of the national “Democrats for Education Reform” weighs in, arguing that Comptroller’s oversight is limited to auditing state agencies and political subdivisions of the state.  Since charter schools are operated by non-profit corporations, they are beyond the Comptroller’s reach, Mr. Williams argues.

Some charter advocates want it both ways.  They are quite ready to proclaim that charter schools are “public schools”, because they were defined as such in the 1998 state law which authorized their creation.

Of course, the Governor and Legislators could also pass a law  declaring themselves to be a ballet company, but that alone would not make them all good dancers.

Several of the contentions put forward in support of the charter schools’ position argue against accepting the claim of “public school” status:  they are not governed by publicly elected boards, nor are their budgets publicly voted upon.

It is also argued that charter schools lack taxing authority.  But that’s not completely true.  Once authorized by a state agency, they may compel school districts to hand over local tax dollars, whether the voters of the district or their elected representatives support the school’s existence or not.

Mr.  Williams also tries to justify exempting charter schools from the Comptroller’s jurisdiction by reciting the other requirements they operate under, including State Education Department oversight and annual independent audits, suggesting these obviate need for Comptroller audits.

Of course, the Council could have cited the applicability of those same considerations to school districts, to argue against the bill mandating the school audits.  But we supported that bill.

The Council was alone among statewide education groups in not opposing the 1998 charter school law.  We did raise concerns that the financing mechanism would hurt district schools and our fears have been borne out.

The law ensures a win-lose financial dynamic between charter and district schools.  Also, it effectively requires districts to continuously maintain the capacity to reabsorb students who abandon charter schools, or are abandoned by them.

At the same time, we acknowledged a possible role for charter schools as vehicles to promote innovation and to provide unique learning opportunities to students. But that potential has been minimally realized, if at all, where it is most needed — at the high school level.  Most charters are elementary schools — the level where public school results are typically strongest and parents seem most apt to be satisfied.

According to the Comptroller, 595 school districts have now had audits completed by his office.  Most districts seem to to regard their experiences as constructive.  It is puzzling that charter schools, otherwise so eager to proclaim their public school status, fight so vehemently to avoid this accountability.

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