Getting ready to fall off the cliff


Dr. Herb Brown, the long-time superintendent of the Oceanside school system sees a bleak future for all of the state’s schools under the present tax cap law that limits the yearly increase to two percent unless 60 percent of the voters decide otherwise.

“All of the districts in the state face unsustainability,” he told a large audience at the last Oceanside school board meeting on March 19. “All 700 of the state’s school districts are lined up facing a cliff. With the tax cap operative, it’s not a question of if the school districts will fall off the cliff, but when. Oceanside is at the back of the line, but its turn will come eventually.”

Brown pointed out that the percentage of state tax aid is unfair to Nassau County.

“We have 17 percent of the state’s students,” he said. “Only 12 percent of the aid comes back to the county. In 1985, 40 percent of our budget was from state aid. Today, it’s only 12 percent of our budget. At the same time, in 1985, property taxes paid for 60 percent of the budget while in 2013, 88 percent of the budget will be funded by property taxes. When did the state leave us as a partner in education?”

Brown pointed to a number of factors other than state aid, which he believes will be partially restored to the Oceanside district, as problem areas that exacerbate the school funding problems.

One of those problems is unfunded mandates, he said, with both the state and federal governments mandating programs that neither the feds not the state specifically pay for.

He pointed to programs such as PARCC and APPR as the leading examples of unfunded mandates that will eventually cost the district tens of thousands of dollars.

PARCC is the acronym for Partnership for Readiness for College and Careers. Under this unfunded mandate, additional state testing of up to 10 tests a year per grade will take place, requiring eight more days of testing each school year.

But PARCC is not only an issue of time, but of money. It requires that a district have sufficient electronic devices or computers to test at one time the largest grade in the school. That means a school with an eighth grade of 500 students, for example, would have to be able to come up with 500 test-appropriate devices.

Local districts are less eager to speak about a second unfunded mandate, the Annual Professional Performance Review System, better known as APPR.

In 2010, the federal government awarded New York State $700,000 in Race to the Top grants, about half of which will go to the performance review process.

The New York State School Board Association, however, says that the federal money will fund only about half the cost for what the process will cost most school districts.

“School boards have long supported the goals of the new evaluation system as a way of improving student achievement,” said the organization’s executive director Timothy Kremer. “Our analysis shows, however, that the cost of this state initiative falls heavily on schools districts. This jeopardizes school districts’ ability to meet other state and federal mandates and properly serve students.”

Brown hopes that the state will restore some of the aid funding, particularly in the high tax category – money traditionally given to school districts that already have high property and school taxes.

“I am assuming that most of that funding will be restored,” he said. “If not, then we have to look for $1.4 million, and that means we could lose 20 teachers. It also means that we have no room for special programs,” Brown told the audience.

“The other problem are is in funding retirement payments. The governor has a plan to stabilize pension costs by keeping them at 12.5 percent for the next 25 years, something akin to a long-term mortgage.

Brown said that he likes the fact that the costs will be stabilized, but thinks that the 12.5 percent is too high.

“It’s a gamble,” he said. There were years when the stock market was going good and we only had to kick in 10 or 12 percent,” he said. “The next year the market did not do so well and we were asked for 16.5 percent. You can never predict from year to year what percentage would be needed to fund the pension fund. Stabilizing it is good, but the 12.5 percent is just not the right place.”