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Letter: Paying For Our Children’s Education

On Saturday, March 2, I had the pleasure of being invited to the Nassau Region PTA Legislative Roundtable and it was truly an eye-opening experience. The topic being discussed was “Maintaining Balance in Times of Stress” and dealt with the impact of the reduction of State aid to Nassau County over the last five years and the effects on local school budgets.

The keynote speaker was Joseph Dragone, the assistant superintendent for business for the Roslyn School District and numerous legislators, including our own Carl Marcellino, Michael Montesano and Edward Ra, and I want to thank them all for participating in this Roundtable.

With changes in student testing, teacher evaluations, the tax cap and its effect on staffing, state aid is a major concern, which necessitates an open dialogue with our elected officials including our governor. Local school districts need this aid now more than ever and one of Dragone’s major points focused on contacting the governor for support and keeping school budgets balanced.

Why contact the governor? Nassau County educates 17 percent of the students state-wide but receives less than 12 percent of the entire state aid. North Shore School District receives actually around 3 percent. Nassau County has lost nearly 1 billion dollars in state aid since 2008. If the amount of state aid received in 2008 (893 million) had just remained the same until 2012-13 (786 million in 2011-2012 and 819 million in 2012-2013), Nassau County would have 1 billion dollars more today. We did get some relief in 2010-2011 but not nearly close to the 2008-09 numbers. In the same period from 2008 through 2013, the mandated portions of the school budgets have gone up nearly 75 percent and are amplified by our decreasing revenues. These mandated expenses include healthcare, state testing, pensions, salaries and of course inflation. The governor’s new proposal for 2013-14 does include $550 million in formula changes with a slight increase in aid to Long Island; however, the governor’s new proposal cuts the High Tax aid by $50 million. The High Tax Aid is the aid, which is given to school districts with the highest property taxes. Let’s not forget that Nassau County also needs to assist our local schools with tax and other forms of aid. As Dragone pointed out, we also need to contact and remind Nassau County Officials. Why contact Nassau County Officials? The Nassau County Guarantee was overturned. It was a 4-0 decision. Now the county is appealing that decision and we are the ones paying ultimately. The Nassau County Guarantee makes school districts responsible for reimbursements due to successful tax grievances. 

First, it is impossible for our schools to budget for this guarantee. Also, the administrative costs for each district to keep records on each grieved property are another expense of a mandate for which schools will not be funded. It seems like Nassau County is just passing off its liability. Why make us pay for this appeal when the Appellate Division (in a unanimous 4-0 decision) held that the Nassau Guarantee violates the NY State Constitution. Whether the local school districts pay or whether Nassau County pays, we as taxpayers are paying the bill, so why spend legal fees for in essence the same results? No sewer treatment tax. NY State law is supposed to exempt non-profit entities from paying for sewer treatment. Adding a usage tax to school districts is again inherently unfair.  Just like the Nassau Guarantee, we are paying for attorneys to battle this issue when in the end, we as taxpayers are already paying either way via our tax bill or through our school budgets. Nassau County is also not doing its part in contributions for capital improvements to local school districts 

What can we do? 

In addition to being informed about the amount of state aid we receive and the taxes we pay, contacting the Governor and local governments is key. Further, maintaining the viability of your school district through a balanced budget is fundamental for longevity.

In a more broad sense, the viability of any school budget relies primarily of the use of the fund balance (surplus/unused money) and at the end of the fiscal year, using that balance to replenish the restricted, assigned and unassigned reserves. Without getting into much detail, the Reserves are like state recognized emergency funds, of which some can only be used for specific purposes and some can be used with little restriction. It is the replenishment of these reserves that makes a district financially strong and which, in the case of the North Shore School District, gives the District a very high bond rating. 

By example, the North Shore School District had a fund balance for the past fiscal year of $1,738,075.68. It was apportioned as follows: $1,000,000 was applied for reduction of tax levy (recorded as revenue for budget purposes); $65,971.38 was applied to increase the undesignated fund balance to 4% of the 2012-2013 budget; $672,104.30 was applied to the capital reserve. Unlike the North Shore School District, the districts who have spent their reserve funds to off set the tax levy, and which have not been able to replenish the reserves due to lack of fund balances, are in big trouble. Sachem is one such example of a school with a budget of $291 million in 2012-2013 with only $241,000 in its reserves.  North Shore School District, in planning its budgets, at least wisely continues to replenish its reserves to a sufficient level as to make us viable and in fact highly rated.

In summing this all up, it is of the utmost importance that we stay on top of our governor, elected officials and local governments to fight for the State funding and for tax reductions to ensure our schools can meet the needs for our children to get the education they deserve. 

Please write letters to Governor Cuomo at the executive chamber, state capital, Albany NY 12224, send emails, and question our Governor and elected officials every opportunity you have. In the meanwhile, remind your school boards to budget responsibly until we get the relief we need.

Michael Nightingale

Glen Head resident