Lorraine Deller, executive director of the Nassau/Suffolk School Boards Association, gave an informative talk to the League of Women Voters of Port Washington-Manhasset. The meeting marked the kickoff of a study of education financing. Community members are encouraged to participate in the study.
The League of Women Voters of Port Washington-Manhasset (LWV) is joining a statewide league initiative to do an in-depth study of the way in which public education in New York State is funded. At the kickoff meeting in January, the speaker was Lorraine Deller, executive director of the Nassau/Suffolk School Boards Association.
The LWV explained that the study is a response to New York State Court of Appeals decision, regarding a lawsuit brought by a group of parents and concerned citizens called the Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE). The court ordered the State of New York to provide an additional $5.63 billion over five years for operating expenses and $1.9 billion annually for the same period for capital costs to the New York City Board of Education. This funding was designed to guarantee that the students in New York City schools have the opportunity to receive a "sound basic education." The court further cautioned that they will act if the legislature fails to do so. The LWV study will evaluate the education financing situation and make recommendations to the state legislature regarding key issues, primarily with regard to how the state raises the revenue and how it allocates funding to the school districts around the state. The study will also assess the impact of charter schools and look at the effects of property taxes on individuals and communities. The results of the study will guide the LWV's lobbying efforts over the next decade.
The LWV invites all interested community members to participate in the study. You need not be a member, but, of course, you are welcome to join. (Editor's note: LWV is open to both men and women.) The committee will meet once or twice a month, with a moderator and recording secretary present at every meeting. To sign up, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, or call one of the co-presidents: Sue Fitzgerald, 767-1073; Edna Vincenti, 627-1987, or Marie Bellon, 767-1897. For further information on this and other issues addressed by the LWV, visit their national website at www.lwv.org, from where you can link to the state and local leagues.
Deller began her remarks by commenting that New York State education funding has been the subject of many studies, commissions, and so forth. But, she said, in her opinion, "we are no further into equitable funding than we were in the 1970s."
Deller laid the major responsibility for inequitable funding and skyrocketing property taxes squarely at the door of the New York State government. She said that, on average, the state provides only 40 percent of school funding, and that on Long Island some districts are funding as much as 90 percent of their school budget from property taxes. "This is, she said, "one of the major reasons for increase in property taxes." She added, "There is money in Albany. Depending on who you listen to, it is $1.5 billion or more."
Deller went on to point out that a great factor in state aid is regional differences. She said, "There is no recognition of the extraordinary costs on Long Island; for example, of property." She added, "Long Island and Westchester are the "cash cows" of school funding. Although we will never get back what we send out, nor should we expect to, we should look at what is coming out because it is coming out of your pocket." Deller advised that we look not just at property taxes, but at sales taxes, state income tax and the lottery. She said, "It is essential that we have money coming into Long Island for educating our children in an equitable way."
Regarding reform of the inequities of assessment, she said, "We are still in favor of re-assessment where there are inequities. Nassau County had not re-assessed since 1938." Despite this, however, she acknowledged that the re-assessment put a burden on certain school districts, especially on the North Shore. She added that this increased tax burden was borne primarily by older houses. She said, "Each and every school district had a different story. Where it was homogenous like Levittown, it was not too bad. In communities where there was older and newer housing before and after the 1950s, we had a lot of people appealing taxes." Deller commented that the high cost of property and property taxes have resulted in many people leaving Long Island for places like North Carolina and Florida. (Although she also pointed out that Nassau has a net population growth.) Deller was not impressed with the STAR program - a tax relief program for seniors and low-income people, although she acknowledged that it had some benefits.
Regarding New York City, Deller pointed out that even with both an income tax and a property tax, New York City residents pay less than those in adjoining counties. "But," she said, "we do not want to pit one child against another. We are not saying that New York City children are fine." She noted the irony that Mayor Bloomberg sent out $400 tax rebate checks at the same time that Long Island had proposed property tax increases.
Deller also noted the sharp increases in the costs of health benefits, pensions, and energy - increases that the school districts can do little or nothing about.
Addressing the federal level, Deller said, "On Long Island we have never qualified for much money from the federal government." Commenting on the unfunded assessment mandate, she said, "No Child Left Behind [NCLB] is probably the largest federal mandate we have ever seen." She added that, apart from the cost, the NCLB overemphasizes the use of test scores and pits one school against another. She said, "Our problem is that it has told us very little that we could not have found out otherwise. Further, programs that districts need and want have given way to remediation so that test scores go up. Understand that we are foremost in promoting innovation and promoting experiences that encourage the child's lifelong learning." In an aside, she commented that the state commissioner of education traveled to China to study how they are teaching technology at the same time a Chinese delegation visited here to learn how to encourage innovation and enthusiasm on the part of the students.
During the stimulating discussion period, Deller said that her group has not taken a position on the question of replacing part or all of the property tax with an income tax, although, she said, the LWV may do so. She pointed out that, although the property tax is regressive, it is more stable than an income tax. She also remarked that in some Long Island communities, wealthy property owners can and do report their income elsewhere. In response to another question, Deller said that she is "unequivocally opposed to charter schools."
The meeting closed with a strong appeal for maximum community input into this important study.