Convention Notebook

Who Cares About Suburban Public Schools?

Charlotte–In a rousing speech to the cheering New York Democratic delegation here Thursday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo called New York the “progressive capital of the nation.”

Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner introduced Cuomo by citing a Siena Poll that found 56 percent of New Yorkers believe the state is going in the right direction.

In spelling out the state’s accomplishments, Cuomo spoke about education, saying: “We know we can improve education by educating all children. We know we can improve education by performance standards and an (teacher) evaluation system. We just did that in New York.”

And he energized the delegates and guests by posing several rhetorical questions: “Do you believe when I invest in your child’s education, I invest in my child’s education? Do you believe education is the ladder to opportunity? Do you believe college loans have to be affordable?”

After the speech, I spoke with Southampton Town Councilwoman Bridget Fleming, the Democratic candidate for New York State Senate against incumbent Republican Sen. Kenneth LaValle. Fleming was attending her first convention with her nine-year-old-son Jai, who attends Sag Harbor Elementary School.

“Gov. Cuomo has outlined the blueprint for prosperity in New York State, and I’m proud to be here,” she said. “But the governor didn’t mention the need to reform the state aid formula [for public schools]. One of the reasons I’m running as a mother of a fourth grader is to change that. We give the state more tax dollars than we get back. I’m here to represent Long Island and the educational needs of Long Island, which are completely distinct from New York City or upstate. Long Island can no longer continue to be a cash cow for the rest of the state.”

Fleming said she would like to change the state aid formula “so it doesn’t punish people who pay high property taxes but don’t have much disposable income. We need to reduce tax assessments for purposes of the formula. When aid to education is reduced, it shifts the burden to the taxpayer and hurts the local economy.”

Lawrence C. Levy, executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., was at both the Republican and Democratic conventions and we chatted about how neither party is currently talking about addressing the needs of suburban schools.

“If the Republicans and Democrats were to score points with swing voters in the suburbs, they should start talking about what they can do for suburban schools,” Levy said. “Both parties are assuming it’s still the 60’s or 70’s when suburban schools didn’t need help. It’s one thing to leave the content of curriculum to the states, but it’s another to leave the entire burden of funding. The suburbs need a lot more help and only the federal government has deep pockets.”

Obama’s Trouble With Young People

Characterizing the 2012 election as one of the closest in recent history, on Tuesday Independent Pollster John Zogby reviewed the difficulties President Barack Obama faces in attracting young voters in the 2012 election. He noted that Obama, who received the support of young people in record numbers in 2008, is having trouble with the 18-29 year old constituency this year. He said that young people, who he characterized as “America’s first global citizens,” comprised 19 percent of the total vote last time, and that in 2008 they were “filled with hope and optimism.”

He noted that this year a subset of this group, which he referred to as CEMGA – College Educated Not Going Anywhere – because of the recession, don’t trust anyone. Zogby said his poll indicated that at the present time, there is a small group of young people  — 10 percent – who say they may vote for Gary Johnson, a libertarian.

Zogby said also that he found a growing sense of libertarianism among young people, as well as “a sense of distrust about the government, the debt, the leadership.”

Two Percent Tax Cap Coming to NYS in 2012 – How will it Affect Your School?

Late last June, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed the two percent tax cap legislation into law in an effort to provide relief to taxpayers. This is the first time New York State has ever had a tax cap on property taxes and its importance as a school issue for parents is huge, although school districts will not confront the issue until they embark upon their budget process in early 2012.

Expect to be hearing and reading a lot about it in the news and from your district this school year. Indeed, a recent New York Times article indicated that local governments, which are also affected by this legislation, are already mounting protests and threatening to override the cap. They are objecting to the restrictions on their spending limits and want to exempt themselves from the new cap, saying they cannot control the growth of property taxes and still provide services and comply with mandates. 

The good news for homeowners is that this legislation will limit the amount you pay in school and property taxes. It will become effective during the 2012-2013 school year, and it will prevent school districts and local governments from increasing property taxes by more than two percent or the rate of inflation, whichever is lower. 

The bad news is that all New York state school districts are worried about how this legislation will impact their finances. While there are certain exceptions in this legislation, such as allowing the tax levy to be higher for pension contributions required by law, districts are concerned that if state aid does not increase and unfunded mandates (state requirements for which the local districts shoulder the expenses) are not relieved, there will be further erosion to the educational program. During the last budget cycle, many districts reduced programs and staff.  Another exception is that districts will be permitted to propose budgets that exceed the cap if 60 percent of voters agree. 

Also problematic for school districts is that they must submit their proposed budget to the NYS Comptroller, Commissioner of Education, and Tax Commissioner by March 1. This is about six weeks earlier than most budgets have been finalized in the past so it will likely move up the budget process in most districts. The weak economy, coupled with the tax cap, and now the debt ceiling legislation, will likely engender much debate in school districts this year about cost savings. Be aware that your district can put anything on the table to be cut, including full-day kindergarten, sports, electives, music, busing, and even the closing of schools. You may also be asked to override the tax. Stay informed and keep tuned for tips to help you to advocate for quality education for your children.