Friday Wrap-Up — April 20, 2012

Friday, April 20th, 2012 at 3:20 pm by

News items we highlighted on our Twitter page and website this week:

  • How the new property tax cap is affecting school district budgeting  is getting more focused attention in the media.
  • A report on the recently enacted state budget projects a small overall deficit and a 3.5 percent School Aid increase for next year.
  • The state’s English Language Arts assessment was given to 3rd through 8th graders this week.  The Wall Street Journal reports that the Board of Regents will consider giving high school students alternatives to the Global History and Geography Exam as a requirement for graduation.
  • Plus pieces on teacher evaluations and mandate relief.

Tax cap
Several stories about how the new tax cap is affecting school budget decision-making…

Last Sunday, the Journal News reported that school districts in its territory (the lower Hudson Valley) had sharply reduced proposed spending and tax increases over the past four years compared with the preceding four years.

For example, school spending increases for the region averaged 7.6 percent per year between 2003-04 and 2007-08, but only 1.6 percent annually for the four years since.

This occurred before the tax cap was enacted.

The paper followed up with an editorial, “School districts learn their lesson,” and ascribed the shift in budgeting chiefly to an influx of more fiscally conservative board members.

I wrote a blog post about the Journal News pieces explaining that the new restraint occurred statewide, because “democracy works,”

the change happened because superintendents and board members – veteran as well as new – concluded it had to:  following the “Great Recession,” taxpayers either could not or would not support a continuation of increases that had been common.

I included a chart showing statewide changes in school spending, tax levy, and state aid since 2003-04. I pointed out the contrast between the last two years with 2003-04: state aid was cut and pension costs surged in all three years, but tax increases averaged about five percentage points lower in the two more recent years than in 2003-04.

I concluded,

School district leaders responded to voter concerns over property taxes.  In a month we will see how voters respond to the choices presented to them for 2012-13 school budgets, and eventually, to the consequences of the choices for their schools.

Writing in Newsday, E.J. McMahon, a key figure in the movement to enact the tax cap, wrote that,

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo wisely modeled New York’s tax cap law on Proposition 2½, the 1980 Massachusetts initiative limiting annual growth in local property tax levies to 2.5 percent.

Well, not exactly.

In Massachusetts, communities may increase their tax levy by up to 2.5 percent without voter approval and require approval by only a simple majority of voters to over-ride the cap.

New York’s law requires 60 percent of voters to approve.

Those points aside, Mr. McMahon is fair in explaining why the actual “tax levy limit” for individual districts will not always equal the widely referenced 2 percent figure (because of exemptions), why individual taxpayers may see larger increases (because of changes in property value) and why the law’s cap on tax levy increases is sounder than a cap on tax rates.

Mr. McMahon concludes,

The real game-changing element of the tax cap law is a two-strikes-and-you’re-out provision for school boards: If any proposed budget, even one holding taxes under the cap, is rejected in two submissions to voters, or withdrawn after failing to pass on first submission, the allowable tax increase is zero — no exceptions.

That two strikes and out provision is why the Poughkeepsie Journal observed “Schools face ‘dire’ risk in vote on budget.”

In a separate editorial, the Poughkeepsie paper concludes, School districts have their work cut out for them.  The piece explains why districts still face tough budgeting choices despite getting an increase in state aid and calling on districts to explore consolidation and sharing opportunities and negotiate harder with employee unions.

A Newsday editorial (LI schools feel tax cap pressure) concludes that the cap has already been, “groundbreaking in its effect on contracts,” and adds,

Officials on both sides of the bargaining tables agree things have truly changed, perhaps permanently.

Our sense from exchanges with superintendents is that the perception that the tax cap has increased the likelihood of gaining cost-saving measures in union negotiations is more common on Long Island than in other regions of the state.


State Budget Outlook for 2013-14 and beyond
By law, the Governor’s Budget Division is required to publish quarterly reports on the state’s financial plan – the implementation of the current year’s budget and the outlook for the next few years following.

This is one area where the performance of state government has improved over the past decade or so – the volume of information now disclosed in these reports is impressive.

The first report on the recently enacted 2012-13 state budget was released yesterday.  As one would expect (or hope), it concludes that budget is balanced.

Looking to the future, it projects a small structural deficit for 2013-14, and a $712 (3.5 percent increase in School Aid).

In a separate blog post, I provide more details and stress that how the planned increase is to be allocated remains to be determined, so no individual district can count on a specific increase.


State Tests
Today the Wall Street Journal is reporting,

The Board of Regents next week will consider state Education Department recommendations to make the global history and geography exam optional. Instead, students could take an additional math, science or vocational exam, starting with freshmen who enter high school in 2013.

This was the week students in grades 3 through 8 took the state’s required English Language Arts assessment.

News coverage reported on families boycotting the tests, questioning the fairness of testing right after a break, and complaining about the length of the tests, especially for young children.

One reason for the extended length of this year’s tests is the inclusion of field-test questions in the actual tests, as opposed to annually recruiting rotating groups of schools to subject their students to stand-alone field-tests.

The new approach is thought to produce a better representation of students and more reliable results, since all students participate and they do not know which questions are being field-tested and which count.

Finally, one question on the 8th grade assessment has drawn puzzled attention throughout the state and beyond — Talking pineapple question on state exam stumps … everyone!

The author of the story on which the question is based — acclaimed children’s author Daniel Pinkwater — weighed-in too.


Teacher Evaluations
Debates over teacher evaluations continue to make news.

New York State United Teachers President Richard Iannuzzi authored two pieces on publishing individual teacher evaluations — “Drawing the Line on Teacher Privacy” and “Shameful tabloids sully evaluation process.”

Both begin by describing the treatment of a teacher of immigrant students unfairly tagged by the New York City tabloids as the City’s worst teacher after individual evaluation results were released.

Mr. Iannuzzi concludes by answering yes to two questions:

Can a balance that addresses the appropriate needs and concerns of parents, teachers, principals and school officials — not to mention students — be achieved? Can we maximize the value of the teacher evaluation process without the public shaming of teachers

Meeting with the editorial board of the Staten Island Advance, State Education Commissioner John King shared some thoughts on the evaluation disclosure controversy:

There’s a tension now, King said, over how much information ought to be available to parents.

“I don’t think it’s helpful to have the newspapers publish ratings by name,” King said.

But he said the aggregate information ought to be available – and it often shows poor teachers concentrated in single schools, he said.

Commissioner King also said he thinks it is inevitable that New York City and its teacher union will agree on new evaluation procedures.

The Commissioner said,

I think a lot of it is about trust-building, on the (state education) department’s part, and on the city’s part, to have people believe that the evaluation isn’t just about firing people – it’s actually about helping people get better.

Meanwhile the ordeal in Buffalo over agreeing on new teacher evaluation procedures continues – the State Education Department is withholding $5.6 million in federal School Improvement Grants because of the impasse over evaluations.

One day after the Buffalo News said, Teachers must step up and compromise, the city’s teacher union voted to reject the district’s latest proposal.

The Buffalo impasse may foreshadow problems more schools could confront, due to the new state budget’s requirement that districts have an evaluation in order to receive their enacted state aid increases.

Perhaps anticipating difficulties, the Utica school board this week adopted a budget which will defer spending $3.8 million in increased state aid until teachers agree to new evaluation procedures.  The Utica union voted to reject a proposal earlier in the week.


Mandate Relief
Finally, a few items on mandate relief…

I did a short blog post about the white paper our Executive Director Robert Reidy did on  regulatory relief the Board of regents could adopt to support raining student achievement – Time for learning.

The Atlantic Monthly asks, “Are Lawmakers Asking Too Much of Our Schools?

The article quotes a survey finding:  “86 percent of public school superintendents and 84 percent of principals say that ‘keeping up with all the local, state and federal mandates handed down to the schools takes up way too much time.’”

Unshackle Upstate, one our partners in the Let New York Work Coalition, had a column calling for mandate relief for schools in the Albany Times Union.

The Education Speaks blog did a clear and  concise post explaining the state’s Wicks Law which requires multiple prime contractors for construction projects above a specified cost threshold.

And last, the Glens Falls Post-Star wrote about efforts by school districts in its region to reduce health insurance costs by joining consortia.


This entry was posted on Friday, April 20th, 2012 at 3:20 pm and is filed under Finance, Legislation, Standards & Assessments, State Budget, Teachers. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.