New York State Senator Michael Balboni graciously spoke at the last Herricks School Board meeting, at the invitation of Superintendent Dr. Jack Bierwirth, to try to explain to the community where Albany is in relation to its budget.
Senator Balboni said, "To fully understand what is going on in Albany, I think we should go back to the beginning of the year. The governor proposed a $100 billion budget, the first time in the state's history that the budget was $100 billion. Out of the budget itself came the issue of Campaign Fiscal Equity lawsuit brought by the New York City court. The crux of the lawsuit is that New York City has been 'short-changed' and therefore the children of the City of New York need to have an infusion of funds so that their entire educational structure can be improved."
Balboni continued, "The decision went to the Court of Appeals and the court ruled that the state had in fact 'short-changed' the city and the state now had to come up with a funding formula that was going to fix the educational deficiencies of only the City of New York.
"Specifically, the decision talks about a determination made to what constitutes a basic, sound education. In the State Constitution the state has a requirement to provide for education, but not exclusively, but as a partner. As the case wound out there were a couple of real deficiencies. Because of the nature of a court review, they had to look at statistics for one year and the court chose 1997. The irony of that is that in 1997 several things had not happened. Number one: in successive four years the state projected an average increase of $1 billion for the next four years - the largest increase the state had ever seen particularly over that period of time. Secondly, the new school governing programs that the mayor has put in place in the city were obviously not taken into account.
"Now, what is going to happen if the case goes back to court, and we believe it is going to because there has to be a resolution before the July 30 deadline, they are going to appoint a 'master' and do another fact finding. We hope there is an opportunity for them to take into account what happened in '98, '99, '00, 01 in addition what an impact the new government's program has. Overall, the court case is very disappointing from a couple of different standpoints. There is no requirement for accountability. The court just said give them money and it doesn't say let's do programs by which we make sure the money is spent appropriately. In addition, the court has a very limited view.
"The state and federal legislature, by design, take an issue and move forward and determine the policy of multiple uses, but the courts look back at the different set of circumstances and apply the law to those specific set of circumstances. To complicate matters even further there are lawsuits coming in. The big five statewide have sued and we believe that suburban school districts will join together and sue saying that they have not received a proper education structure. So we believe that this will continue to evolve.
"We all had to come up with plans. So what was the senate plan? Just to show what kind of ballpark we are in...where we would provide for the next five $4.5 million in addition to which we anticipate there will be another billion dollars coming from the federal government and then we would provide to the City of New York a subsidy of half a billion dollars. Lastly, as part of the plan, we would allow the city to bond for $2.8 billion. That is a package of almost $9 billion for the City of New York over five years. That is a pretty good package and we believe that it is a response to the court's initial inquiry.
"How do we pay for it? BLTs, but people were not happy with that. But what we don't want is to do is break our shares. At the same time we would invest this amount of money in the CFE but what we are also going to do is maintain the percentage that has traditionally been distributed through the educational funding system.
"What does that mean. Long Island gets 13 percent generally. We have 60 percent of the children but we get 13 percent. Why does that matter? In the assembly's plan that was put forth Long Island's share would be reduced to 9 percent. We can't do that. By the way, that would be the formula for the next five years. So, over time we would really have a problem. The assembly's response from the city members was, 'Well, we are not cutting anything.' Yes, but they are not increasing it either. You are cutting the amount of interest. So if everybody else is getting this mass infusion of dollars and we remain static, we are losing. Which is really the heart of this battle."
Balboni went on, "As far as the rest of the educational dollars, we could have had a budget in March. But, I think what everybody made was a basic political miscalculation. I have served in the New York State Senate for seven years and what is very apparent is the dichotomy and deviousness that the city school funding issues generated in the assembly. Particularly, the black and Latino caucus who have been saying that they have been 'short-changed' and that is why their student populations were not performing. This decision for them was a vindication of all the things they were saying and from a political prospective they could not go home to their districts without some kind of CFE resolution or being dragged kicking and screaming to some type of resolution or going back into court. Much as I would be loathe to return to this district if I actually allowed a massive cut in school aid to occur. Which, by the way, is why we did the over-ride last year.
"Where are we now? The difficulty is that we are absolutely nowhere and the irony of that is that the economy continues to improve. The revenues we collect from sales tax are increasing, which is one of the components of the state budget and our capitol gains taxes have increased because Wall Street has had a very good year so we are actually, from a financial prospective, better than we have been in many, many years. So, money was not the issue this year in the budget."
Senator Balboni then said he would address other issues that Dr. Bierwirth had asked him to address.
He said, "Roslyn School District. It is a huge issue...a 'white elephant' sitting in a room. From a political prospective, it could not have come at a worse time because just as I sit there on the senate floor arguing with my city colleagues that we have to maintain Long Island shares they say well wait a minute. A school district lost $8 million dollars and they didn't miss it. They didn't cut classes, they didn't reduce programs and they didn't raise taxes? So, what do we do?"
Balboni went on, "There has been a call, obviously, not only for accountability and discovery, from the prosecution, but accountability in the entire system. Last year Long Island school districts spent $7 billion. That's a lot of money. So what has happened is that school boards have become big business. There are several proposals that have been introduced and I don't know which one will be passed. Several I have introduced with New York State Assemblyman Thomas DiNapoli. I would apply the 'general officer's law' to board members."
He went on to describe what a 'general officer's law' is. He said, "Essentially, if you are a mayor of a village that has a $500,000 budget there are couple of things you have to do. You have to fill out a disclosure form for your personal finances. If someone comes before you and they have a conflict of interest with you then you have to disclose it. Right now that does not have to happen at school boards. There is a call for an Inspector General for School Boards. In addition, there are several auditing bills. There was a request that the State Comptroller audit every school district every-other year. The difficulty to that is that there is no money attached to that bill and given the number of school district the state comptroller would not be able to audit anyone else. So that is uppermost in everybody's minds.
"Obviously, the impact of Roslyn is going to be massive and now we have William Floyd, Three Village and Uniondale. So, everybody is wondering where this is going to go. The best thing we can do is to try to provide accountability and it shouldn't just be negative. To work on a school board is very hard. Some districts do things very well and I think we should have the ability to look at what other districts do around the Island ... what works and get some uniform ideas ... perhaps a way to intake money that works better."
Balboni then said that Dr. Bierwirth had asked him to comment on the assessment of those homes at Chatham. (The development of homes on the LIE Service Road) Balboni said, "Just a general comment on assessment, we blew it! Nassau County did! It is not a Republican or Democrat issue. There is a basic unfairness to say to people that they have been underpaying for all these years, through no fault of theirs, so in the course of one year they have to make all of that up. For senior citizens on a fixed income that is cruel. So they should have done it in phases. And, there was absolutely no call for a phase-in, we could have done that if we received a formal request from Nassau and we would have. That is one of the things working its way through now, but unfortunately it's a real hardship."
Balboni said about the Chatham that he was meeting with the owners in the assessors office in an effort to see if there is some way to compensate for the money that has been lost to the district this year.
Balboni said, "You know there are some districts that are producing good things. The irony of Roslyn is that the district does great things with the kids and they go on to good colleges. Look at this district, 80 percent going to four-year colleges with a dropout rate of less than .02 percent, which is an amazing statistic and it continues. This has always been a community that has cultural diversity kind of what I call a 'population sprawl.' You're all over the place, yet you come together."
Dr. Bierwirth had one last question for Senator Balboni and that was why is the Empire Plan (The New York State Health Plan) increasing its premium rates at twice the rate of every other health insurance company?
Senator Balboni said that his wife had asked him the same question just today and he is making inquiries as to why this is happening.
He then said, "Let's fix Albany! This is the worst year I have ever experienced in Albany, the absolute worst from the standpoint of the budget itself. People have just stopped talking. I am Chairman of Homeland Security. I have proposed 14 measures and they have passed in the senate; everything from bio-chemical terrorism to emergency preparedness plans, chemical plant security and inspection programs. Not one passed the assembly and worse than that we have not even engaged in dialogue. CFE has dominated the entire agenda. We have gotten into this culture where if we don't fix one issue we don't fix any issues and of course, the editorial boards are excoriating the legislature and in many ways they have a point. On top of that there are the recent convictions with folks going to jail so it's a black-eye for the entire legislature."
"The way we stand right now is that the CFE deadline is July 30 so the speaker will not entertain any discussion on the budget until after July 30. Of course, what happens after July 30? The Republican National Convention comes to New York and people are really going to want to be sitting around in Albany while the convention is going on in New York. So, it's likely, and you've heard it here first, that the State of New York could go without a budget for the entire year and if you think that's bad for you...it's worse for me because I stopped getting a paycheck on March 23...isn't that interesting...and a little bit degrading!"
He took a few questions from the audience and then after a discussion about Medicaid and how low the reimbursement rate is from the federal government to the State of New York, he left the meeting and for a brief time continued to take individual questions from residents in the hallway.