In his letter in last week's paper, Mr. Frank Russo says that "school costs are out of control," and follows that statement with more than a full column about the teachers contract. Clearly, his intention is to link in readers' minds the teachers contract with the increases in the budgets.
Unfortunately for Mr. Russo's credibility, he's made a very misleading argument by linking these two subjects.
Here is the truth.
Salary increases, according to published school budgets, have increased only 7 percent ahead of Mr. Russo's CPI of 31 percent, over the last tens years. Nowhere near his implied 82 percent increase. (By the way, this 'CPI' is itself a misleading statistic, being an artificially low number that does not reflect the actual increase in the cost of living.)
Here's another truth. We have many other issues that we need to understand when talking about the school budgets:
* Bond debt payments. The bond was voted in by a clear majority of participating voters. After 25 plus years of neglect, it was necessary. Mr. Russo and many others have vocally and repeatedly supported these infrastructure expenses as priorities at school board meetings. To the average taxpayer, it's like letting your house deteriorate for 25 years by not fixing your roof, not cleaning your gutters, and not checking your foundation, while adding to the size of your family every year. You'll have to take out a home equity loan, and it'll be a tough pill to swallow. And probably, if you're smart, as our current board and administration are proving to be, you'll work out a plan to avoid being so careless and neglectful in the future.
* Decreases in state funding and increases in state-required expenses. The State of New York, 10 years ago, contributed some $4 million of our school budget. In the current year, despite the 31 percent increases we all face, this contribution is down to $3.2 million. At the same time, the State of New York, in keeping with federal guidelines under the No Child Left Behind Act, has increased the testing requirements for all students, which will require enormous person-hours of time for training, administering the tests, grading the tests, interpreting the results, and adjustments to curriculum in response to the tests. This in a year when, due to the austerity budget, we can ill afford to hire substitutes. Therefore, our students, because of a lack of voter support and a lack of support from our elected officials at the state and federal level, may actually have fewer hours of real teaching time with their teachers just so that they can be tested. This initiative is not coming from our administration nor from our school board.
* Shifting taxpayer base in Port. As large firms have closed or moved out of town, our business tax base has significantly decreased. The land has been shifted to high-intensity housing. So, we have fewer businesses and more individuals paying for all of the services funded by public tax money than this town has ever experienced. The burden on homeowners and small businesses is indeed heavy.
* Nassau County's financial mess. After many years of mismanagement and neglect at the county level, county officials are finally putting their finances in order. Unfortunately, this has also been done on our backs, in the form of unimaginable assessment increases. So the county's finances are getting better, but our personal finances are getting worse.
Mr. Russo's arguments about whether there should be a step increase or a freeze are not the issue in this letter. His credibility is. He puts his credibility in question when he mixes arguments and throws numbers around as a scare tactic. I say, stick to a single argument, and don't scare the taxpayers of this town away from supporting the school system. If he has an argument to make about the teacher's contract, then he should make it. But don't confuse the issue.
Taxpayers don't vote on teacher contracts. We do vote on budgets, but the budget does not control the terms of the teachers contract. We may not like it, but that's the law. We need to support our public schools, whatever the result of the negotiations between the parties involved in the contracts are.
We also need to redress the wrongs done us by higher levels of government. I call upon our elected officials, including Legislator Craig Johnson, Senator Balboni, and Senators Schumer and Clinton, to fix the system now so that greater equilibrium is found for our local taxpayers.
Our children are suffering because our taxpayers are angry at the injustices done to them. Our children can't vote. It's our job to vote on their behalf, and in their interests.
Susan (Stocker) Sturman