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Letter: NYSSBA Letter to Gov. Andrew Cuomo

We are writing in response to your Feb. 16 letter to fellow New Yorkers on education reform. We agree that New Yorkers elected you to be their voice in Albany and to make tough decisions; it is also true that New Yorkers elected 5,000 school board members around the state to be the voice of their school districts.

Few issues are as critical to the future of our state as fundamentally reforming our education system. We are prepared to work closely with you to make the necessary changes so schools can provide a high quality education at the lowest possible cost.

Your letter suggested four ways in which school districts can absorb your proposed state aid reductions without laying off teachers, cutting programs or harming students. The following is NYSSBA’s Four-Point Plan to help us achieve those goals:

Reform the Triborough Amendment to eliminate automatic salary increases under expired labor contracts. A recent NYSSBA analysis estimates eliminating this provision would save New York school districts upwards of $100 million annually, and would allow districts to bargain from a position of parity when asking teachers unions to negotiate wage freezes. More than 75 percent of board members responding to a NYSSBA poll earlier this month said their district should seek wage freezes and other concessions from employee unions. But this effort becomes extremely difficult if both parties are not compelled to return to the negotiations table. The Triborough “safety net” removes the bargaining unit’s incentive to reopen a contract, knowing that a wage freeze or other concessions are being sought by the school board.

Introduce legislation to implement a statewide mandatory minimum health insurance contribution of 15 percent for individual coverage and 25 percent for family coverage. NYSSBA realizes that healthcare coverage is negotiated locally. Increasing the employees’ share of the cost has been the top bargaining objective for most school boards for years. While we have made incremental progress, the cost increases for covering employees and retirees are outpacing our efforts at the bargaining table. State-mandated minimum thresholds would bring school employee healthcare contributions closer to the national average of 19 percent for single coverage and 30 percent for family coverage, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. In the 2009-10 school year, teachers in 77 percent of New York’s school districts contributed less than 15 percent for individual coverage and teachers in 96 percent of districts contributed less than 25 percent of the premium for family coverage. A mandated minimum contribution could save taxpayers as much as $2,169 per active teacher and $2,507 per retired teacher. This legislation would impact nearly every school district budget and help taxpayers achieve as much as $500 million in savings annually. This change would also allow negotiations to focus on other matters more closely linked to student achievement.

Eliminate costly mandates. While the salaries of school administrators serve as an easy target, they comprise only 1.6 percent of average school spending. School districts are forced to bear much greater costs over which they have little or no control – defined benefit pension plans, special education obligations that far exceed federal requirements, an archaic 3020-a procedure and the Wicks Law, for example. These mandates place financial burdens on local taxpayers who themselves recognize little value after paying the bill. Addressing the main cost drivers within the school district budget – particularly pensions, special education and outdated management operations – would be a better strategy for reducing school district costs rather than implementing a proposed property tax cap.

Fix state school aid once and for all. The Campaign for Fiscal Equity settlement, following 13 years of litigation, recognized that the school funding system violated the state Constitution’s guarantee of a sound basic education. The CFE settlement promised substantial new resources to fund public education on a statewide basis, and that the fundamental principles of aid distribution must be aligned with a community’s actual ability to support its schools. Governor, please commit to a reasonable phase-in schedule of court-ordered state aid increases, and support a foundation aid formula that fairly reflects local economic conditions.

Last year, NYSSBA launched a campaign called “Be the Change for Kids” to urge school leaders to optimize resources and embrace new methods of teaching and learning that will improve results. School boards, administrators and employee unions are making progress working together during this economic crisis to hold down costs and save jobs. We will continue to press for greater cost containment and better results. We appreciate your recognition and support of these efforts.

To echo your letter to New Yorkers, NYSSBA welcomes a chance to come together to find solutions to our schools’ financial challenges. Together, we can make New York’s schools the envy of the rest of the nation.

Florence D. Johnson, President

Timothy G. Kremer, Executive Director

NYSSBA