William Bernhard (Superintendent, Babylon Village Schools; Adjunct Professor, School Finance and School Business Administration at Stony Brook University). Massapequa Post. 4/1/2005.
The third Tuesday in May is the most significant day of the year for every school district in New York State. Super Tuesday is the day when schools face the reality of knowing whether their communities have approved their spending plans. With recent legislation limiting a contingent budget to an increase based on the Consumer Price Index, its an anxious time for school districts. The allowable increase is so small that it would not even approach covering fixed costs such as retirement contributions, health insurance premium increases, energy costs, etc. which must be paid. In my own Babylon School District, we have estimated that the difference between an approved budget and a contingent budget that is capped would result in a 15% staff reduction. That would devastate existing educational programs and greatly increase class sizes. At a time when we must spend more to comply with the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation, a capped contingent budget would not only leave a child behind but just about our entire Kindergarten through grade 12 student body.
On Super Tuesday night when the polls have closed, I watch the budget results like baseball scores, as they flash by the bottom of the TV screen. My professional bias becomes evident as I root for each school budget to pass and hopefully join Babylon among the ranks of those districts with approved spending plans. Since I know the efforts and months of hard work, the controversies, the difficult decisions made between spending and educational programs, the politics, and even the acrimony that go into developing a budget, I can sense the pain of failed budgets for my colleagues and their school districts. I am amazed and grateful that our budgets continue to be approved. We are, after all, asking our community members to vote on their own tax increases which over the last several years have been double digit in many communities and during a time when negative press about school districts seems to be a daily occurrence. Perhaps, contrary to what we read every day in the media, that our boards of education and school personnel are doing something right and for the most part our taxpayers do appreciate the education we provide our children.
In our efforts to pass budgets, we have everything working against us. State aid formulas that are blatantly unfair, a discriminatory property tax system, a state legislature that for 20 years in a row has failed to adopt a budget on time while legislatively imposing budget deadlines on local school districts, and a pattern of recent legislation by the same legislature, under the guise of disclosure, that is subtlety designed to defeat school budgets.
Everyone including the courts agree that the funding formulas for state aid are broken! Even those responsible for enacting the state aid laws admit to this yet year after year the system continues to fail the school districts through out the state. When the state legislature was given an opportunity to provide some remedies to the inequities in the manner in which state aid is distributed following the Campaign for Fiscal Equity Lawsuit, it failed to meet the July 2004 deadline and the decision making, by default, was given to three special Masters appointed by the courts. The CFE lawsuit ruled that the funding of education to New York City was unconstitutional because it did not provide for a basic sound education. Therefore the recommendations only addressed the financial needs of the New York City school system. The obvious consequence to the rest of the state and especially Long Island is that the 5.6 billion dollars needed to fix the New York City schools will further reduce our share of the state aid pie.
This squandered opportunity in failing to meet the CFE deadline will only exacerbate the politically motivated formulas that persistently shortchange Long Island school districts. Formulas that do not take into account regional cost differences and are driven by faulty wealth data which serve to reduce our entitlement. The fact is that when Long Island school districts wealth formulas are weighted for enrollments we are no wealthier than the rest of the state but nonetheless receive far less state aid proportionally. Babylon is a microcosm of this phenomenon with small pockets of high wealth communities skewing our overall average wealth, something the state calls the "Combined Wealth Ratio", which is the single largest variable in determining how much state aid a district will receive. This is unfair to the bona fide "average wealth" homeowner in Babylon who must bear the financial burden of living in a "wealthy" district. This explains why the Babylon Village, a district that has demonstrated fiscal restraint in keeping its spending below the average for Suffolk County, has one of the higher tax rates when compared to the rest of the school districts in the Babylon Township. This year the Babylon School District received less state aid than the year before because we reduced some of our costs in those areas that are reimbursable by the state through their state aid formulas.
If a student is fortunate enough to live in a school district that has a shopping mall or an industrial park, chances are his or her parents and the other residents of the community not only pay a lot less for that childs education but the resources available to that student are more abundant. There is something inherently unfair about this.
By law, the State of New York must have a budget adopted by April 1st of each year. This is also an important deadline for school districts because the adopted budget contains the state aid revenues allocated to each school district. Without that important piece of the revenue picture it is virtually impossible to determine the impact of a proposed budget on the tax rate. When the state does not pass its budget on time, when they ignore their own legal requirements, as they have for the past 20 years, the school districts are placed in an untenable position of coming up with an estimated tax rate. From a financial perspective, the tax impact of the budget is really what the voters want to know before they exercise their rights. What is especially exasperating is that school boards no longer can determine the date of their budget votes. The legislature, with its inability to pass a budget on time, determines when we must vote on our budgets and we must do so without that critical component of our revenue sources, state aid. At a time when public credibility and confidence in local school districts is so critical we run the risk of "guessing" incorrectly on the tax rate. How do you explain to a resident that the tax rate on which they thought they voted is different than the one that appears on their property tax bill six months later?
I doubt if little will change as we begin the new budget season. It just gets more difficult each year to pass a budget even in a supportive community like Babylon. We cant expect to go back to the property tax well, year after year, and expect to find it full. Unless the people who make the laws are willing to overhaul the funding mechanism for schools and make meaningful systemic changes, the financial outlook for our schools is bleak. Its too bad because Long Island schools are arguably the finest in the country.
(Dr. Bernhard has been the Superintendent of the Babylon Village Schools for the last 6 years. He also teaches School Finance and School Business Administration as an adjunct faculty member at Stony Brook University)