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February 7, 2011

 

State reps get earful on school woes

School officials offer ideas, seek help in dealing with proposed cuts

EducationJoe McIntyre/staff photographer
State Sen. Jim Seward (R-Milford) takes questions from area education administrators on Saturday during the annual Central New York School Board Association Legislative Breakfast at Dryden Middle School.

By SCOTT CONROE
Staff Reporter
sconroe@cortlandstandard.net

DRYDEN — Local school leaders asked for help Saturday from state legislators and received understanding but few answers in the wake of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s state budget proposal.
Board of education members and superintendents of schools from Cortland, Tompkins, Madison, Cayuga, Onondaga and Tioga counties gathered at Dryden Middle School for a breakfast sponsored by the Central New York School Boards Association.
They asked questions of Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton (D-Ithaca) and state Sens. James Seward (R-Milford) and Tom O’Mara (R-Big Flats).
Their questions focused on how they are going to pay for students’ education and employee salaries when Cuomo plans an aid cut averaging 7 percent, a 2 percent cap on property tax increases, little relief in unfunded state mandates and the end of some incentives for using BOCES shared services, which save money.
Employee retirement and health benefits will grow into a larger percentage of every district’s budget.
School leaders were anxious to tell legislators why they need help and to gather support for a plan created by the Statewide School Finance Consortium, an upstate group aimed at reforming the state budget process, to freeze teacher salaries and cap health insurance and pensions.
Lifton said she would need to study it more. Seward said he supports it. Both said they understand it will be difficult to impose such measures when teachers and other employees have contracts that promise raises and benefit increases.
“We need a discussion about truly shared sacrifices,” Lifton said. “It’s not a good thing in our economy to have middle-class people take a wage freeze. That’s not how our economy will recover.”
Lifton advocated continuing an income tax increase on the top 2 percent wealthiest of New York’s residents that was enacted in 2009. The tax, which raised their income tax rate between 1 and 2 percent, is set to expire at the end of the state’s fiscal year in 2012.
“I’m really concerned about hitting teachers and staff (financially) — they are not the cause of the mess we’re in,” said Lifton, a former teacher.
Seward said salaries could be frozen and contracts could be broken, which he said union leaders would not support but rank-and-file members might.
Lifton opposes a tax cap while Seward already voted for the one passed by the Senate last week. Lifton said a tax cap damaged the California school system after it was passed in the 1980s.
Both agreed with Consortium Executive Director Rick Timbs, the opening speaker, that the property tax inequities between poor upstate districts and wealthy downstate districts need to be fixed.
Later, O’Mara said the tax cap will not be feasible if districts and local governments do not get help from the state government. He said a “one size fits all” approach to property taxes will not continue to work for the state.
McGraw Superintendent of Schools Mary Curcio presented the legislators with an Empire Center for New York State Policy study showing why school employee pensions have grown so much — projected to quadruple in the next five years.
The study says public pension costs have grown because, while the employee retirement systems meet government actuarial standards, they have funding shortfalls when their liabilities are measured by private-sector accounting rules.
Curcio said that even with a wage freeze, McGraw’s budget covering employee benefits will grow next year by $400,000.
Ellen O’Donnell, Tompkins-Seneca-Tioga BOCES executive director, asked Lifton and her fellow Assembly members to fight Cuomo’s education cuts and to help local districts gain more control.
Cortland board member Mary Lou Bordwell said she makes enough to live on, as a retired teacher, but not as much as friends from larger districts. She said she would not mind paying more for her health benefits but wants equitable cuts.
Auburn board member Dave Lansford said he wants legislators to create a strategic plan for handling the financial problems of the next few years.
Forrest Earl, the association’s vice president and a former Homer board president, said insurance costs, not taxes, are hurting his business.
Assemblyman Gary Finch (R-Springport) was absent due to health reasons but sent a staff member.
Timbs, in his opening remarks, called the property tax differences between upstate and downstate districts “immoral and unethical.”
“What is this, the beating will continue until your morale improves?” said the former BOCES district superintendent. “We’ve given all we can, here in upstate.”

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