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Port Washington School District Discusses Unfunded Mandates

The members of the Port Washington School District Board of Education and the district’s administrative staff have often attributed some of their expenses to “unfunded mandates”; that is, requirements of the federal and/or state government that do not carry with them concomitant funding. Now that budget voting time is close, the Port Washington News sat down with Superintendent Dr. Geoffrey Gordon and Assistant Superintendents Mary Callahan (Business) and Dr. Nicholas Stirling (Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment) to discuss those mandates in more detail. Specifically, we asked: What are the major mandates and the approximate cost of each one; what mandated programs or activities would they change if they could and what would they do anyway; and what changes, if any, do they anticipate with new administrations at the federal and state level?

Gordon and Callahan estimate that the total of unfunded state mandates will rise to more than $36 million this coming year. Gordon said, “It is unfair to local districts and local taxpayers and really represents a hidden taxation without representation.”

The consensus among those with whom Port News spoke was that the most problematic of these mandates is the assessment required by the New York State Department of Education, in response to the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act. The standardized tests are intended to measure student performance against standards that educators expect students to master in each of the grades from three through eight. The results are used in judging the performance of school districts, specific schools, as well as particular classrooms and individual students. The program has been controversial, with some educators and public officials putting forth the argument that some kind of objective measure of school performance is essential. Others point out that standardized testing by itself is an imperfect indicator of both school and individual performance, provides a limited view of the whole child and the classroom experience, encourages teaching to the test, discourages creativity, and does not incorporate all (or even most) of the components that lead to success in school and in life.

Stirling commented, “We need to strike a balance. The state tests have come to be ‘the be-all and the end-all’ in judging the quality of the school, the teacher and the individual student.’ This is not valid; we should be about teaching and learning, not about testing. The state needs to minimize the emphasis on testing, and put more emphasis on values.” Callahan added that the principals feel that too much pressure is put on the students to perform on any given day, although she added that perhaps some kind of assessment needs to be done, but perhaps the current requirements are more than is needed. Gordon questioned the need for so much assessment during the early years, saying, “We really look to the ninth grade and up. We look at the results at the end of high school to judge.” (The current assessments are required from third through eighth grade; the high school students are measured by the Regents and Advance Placement examinations.) Callahan estimated that the yearly cost to the district of these mandated assessments is $182,000.

With respect to all the mandates, Callahan said, “It is clear to me that each year the system of funding has become more difficult. These mandates take more money out of the budget for classroom activities, especially as they relate to business practices.” For example, Callahan pointed to the internal and external auditing and data reporting requirements, which she believes are more stringent and extensive than necessary. The state comptroller’s office now requires three distinct audits: a claims auditor, an internal auditor, and an external auditor. The estimated total cost of auditing, actuary and reporting requirements, plus mandated filter Internet services, is $222,500.

Other mandated programs and their respective costs identified by Callahan were as follows: health services for Port Washington (students who attend private school outside the district)-$89,000, academic intervention services (AIS) including summer school-$146,000; English as a Second Language (ESL)-$2,217,400, state minimum requirements for pupil transportation-$2,800,000, special education including home tutoring-$16,510,287, and employer share of Social Security-$5,156,000. In addition, the pro-rated costs of specialized personnel such as psychologists, nurses, social workers and others add up to $3,096,288. Clearly, some of these services would be provided by the district anyway, even without mandates, but not necessarily to the same extent or in the same way. Callahan was not able to estimate the incremental costs.

In summary, Gordon said, “The children and the schools represent an investment in the future, and it is my hope that one day state government will decide to share the burden rather than simply shove it down to local districts and local taxpayers.” He added, “There is no point in complaining about the unfairness in the amount of unfunded mandates that get passed down to Port Washington; rather, we must all work together to find innovative ways to raise revenues and reduce expenses so that we can continue having Port Washington recognized nationwide for educational achievement while at the same time reducing costs and tax increases in a prudent financial way wherever possible.”