Schools expect crunch from zero tax increases next year

Nov 10, 2015

The leaders of school districts, teachers unions, and parents are presenting a united front in calling for $2.2 billion more school aid next year.  They say a hard property tax cap with a zero percent increase is making it even more crucial that state lawmakers help them out.

When the tax cap was approved in 2011, it was widely described as a 2 percent per year tax cap. But there wasn’t much attention paid to the second part of the tax cap law, which is 2 percent or the rate of inflation, according to the Consumer Price Index. School districts say they are going to hit the wall in the next school year, when the allowable tax increase will be zero. The Education Conference board’s John Yagieleski says the legislature must change that.

“They have to,” Yagieleski said.

Yagieleski says the problem with the cap is that it looks backwards, not forwards. While the 2015 inflation rate may well be zero, for the 2016-17 school year, even Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s own budget office projects it will be 2.3 percent. Yet the amount of school taxes will be frozen in place, under the tax cap rules.

“That zero reflects where we’ve been. Our districts are budgeting for where we need to be,” he said. “We’re planning for kid’s educations next year, not last year.”

The schools, along with the teachers union and the PTA, say they need a minimum of a $2.2 billion increase in school funding in the state budget to make up for the difference. They say that’s far less than a 2006 court order that said the state should actually be giving schools more than $4 billion more a year. Though they say they would like to see that increase phased in over the next few years.

On top of what they say is a funding crunch, schools face other big challenges, including, the continued messy implementation of the Common Core learning standards and the increase of controversial standardized tests, which led to a student boycott of the exams in the spring, where 20 percent opted out.

Schools are also facing pressure to quickly implement new teacher evaluation systems pushed by Cuomo and adopted somewhat reluctantly by the legislature as part of the budget this year. Ninety percent of schools have been granted waivers from the State Education Department to postpone creating the new teacher rankings for a few more months, as of November 9.

According to the State Education Department, 633 of the around 700 school districts in New York have been granted delays for a few months on implementing, though a small number may still be able to forge new ranking systems with their teachers and might not need the waivers.

But there is still a question on whether schools will have to forfeit some related school aid increases if they delay the programs beyond November 15. Bob Lowry, with the state School Superintendents Association, says the group is seeking to get the school aid increased decoupled from the new teacher rating systems.

“We think it’s inappropriate,” said Lowry. “It leads to bad decisions at the local level in the rush to try to get something approved.”

The state is due to have a billion dollar surplus this year, but Gov. Cuomo has often derided education groups for continually asking for more funding, saying it has not translated into better results, especially at the state’s worst performing schools . He reiterated those concerns in his most recent State of the State earlier this year.

“So don’t tell me ‘if we only had more money it would change,’” Cuomo said on January 21. “We’ve been putting more money into the system every year for decades and it hasn’t changed. And 250,000 children were condemned to failing schools by this system.”

Yagieleski says there’s a reason why education spending is so high. He says the state has devised high expectations and many rules that schools are expected to follow, and pay for.

“We have a myriad of requirements that we didn’t invent that were put in place that cost money to deal with,” he said. “Some of which don’t do anything positive for instruction for kids.”

Here, the groups that make up the education conference board differ on what mandated rules should be eliminated. School boards want to make it easier to collectively bargain with teachers unions, while teachers would like some of the rules governing charter schools to be changed.