Superintendent Cosimo Tangorra is biting his nails. “It does keep me up at night and usually, nothing does,” says Tangorra, who leads the 1,700-student Ilion Central School District in upstate New York, not far from Utica. “It’s becoming a problem.”
“It” is the even greater financial strain that will be faced by many districts in New York since the state legislature imposed a 2 percent cap on school budget increases. If a district seeks a budget for next year that is more than 2 percent higher than the current year’s budget, the district will need a super majority vote, or 60 percent or more of voters, to pass it.
In most districts, about 70 to 80 percent of the budget is dedicated to salaries and benefits, leaving little room for expanding academic programs.
“As a result, high-needs, low-wealth districts, many of which are rural, are facing academic insolvency,” says Robert Reidy, Jr., executive director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents (NYSCSS). “There have already been thousands of job cuts in education over the last few years and districts are becoming less able to provide quality offerings to educate children under this cap.”
Seeing this coming a couple of years ago, Reidy’s group formed a coalition of business, local government and educational organizations to fight back. Because school district budgets are often impacted by unfunded state mandates, the coalition, “Let NY Work: A Common Agenda for the Common Good,” focuses on mandate relief from the legislature. The group’s five-point program calls for:
- Redefining compulsory arbitration. The key element here is to add transparency to the arbitration process. Currently, an arbitration panel deliberates and renders its decision behind closed doors. Making these proceedings subject to the Open Meetings Law will add a level of accountability to a process that lacks any degree of transparency.
- Freezing step increases when contracts expire. Salary step increases would be held when no contract is in place. This will allow teachers to come to the table to negotiate if they don’t get an automatic raise, which has been the case for years.
- Reducing the costs of construction on public/private projects. The coalition calls for using a specific wage table to determine the regional prevailing wage rate for projects. It also seeks passage of the Public Construction Savings Act, which will allow local governments to enter into project labor agreements in which participation is optional for bidders; a bidder can choose to bid with or without participation in the agreement, and the municipality shall pick the lowest bid consistent with other laws. This will save districts money if they are undergoing construction, but construction is not likely to be booming over the next few years, Reidy adds.
- Establishing minimum health insurance contributions for employees and retirees. Employers will cover no more than 85 percent of a single healthcare premium or 75 percent of a healthcare premium for families or retirees. This will be phased in over a three-year period. Health costs are “big cost drivers” now, contributing to increases in district spending by 2.5 percent, Reidy says. The minimum contributions also would give districts a “predictable budgetable amount” on which to count, according to Robert Lowry, deputy director of the NYSCSS.
- Ending new mandates. Passage of the Unfunded Mandate Reform Act would require a super-majority, or three-fifths of legislators, to enact new unfunded mandates.
Reidy adds, “Something has to change. We will not survive with ‘business as usual’. And we can’t cut our way out of this thing.”
Without at least some of these remedies, the future looks difficult for hard-pressed districts like Ilion, where 47 percent of its students qualify for the free or reduced lunch program and where administrators are planning to consolidate with two nearby districts to share costs.
What keeps him up at night, Tangorra says, is the prospect of having to limit or even end popular programs such as extra-curricular and interscholastic sports, AP courses and even kindergarten if the reforms aren’t enacted. “We’re already close to offering a barebones program,” he says.
Angela Pascopella is managing editor.