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Note — This entry was written on March 21, 2013.

New York’s Tax Cap: Economic Efficiency or Educational Idiocy?

Governor Andrew Cuomo took his oath of office on January 1, 2011. The temperature gauge in Albany bottomed out at 28º Fahrenheit on that day. For school districts throughout the state, it has become increasing more frigid ever since. Through a series of maneuvers including the implementation of the Property Tax Cap, Governor Cuomo is steadily driving down the quality of education in the state in the name of fiscal responsibility.

As a teacher, I can already see the results taking shape within my own district. Over the course of the last few years, we have lost dozens of teachers due to cuts – cuts that have been made necessary, in large part, by the Tax Cap and the impact it has had on the process of putting together a budget that is likely to gain voter approval. My district, Alden Central Schools, is not unlike other districts throughout the state in that it is doing whatever it can to stay afloat, both financially and programmatically. It has managed to stay afloat, but it certainly is no longer providing the same quality of education that it was able to provide just a few years ago.

When facing a budget gap, districts have few options available to them to rectify the situation. In simplified terms, they can increase revenue by raising school taxes or decrease expenditures by cutting jobs and programs. They can try to alleviate the extreme nature of either of those moves by dipping into the district’s fund balance, but once that balance is depleted, the district is, for all intents and purposes, finished. That’s it. Those are the major choices. It used to be that the combination of state aid and property taxes provided the necessary funds to maintain the quality of the educational system. That is no longer the case. State aid has been stagnant, basically frozen at the same levels since 2008. Now with the implementation of the Tax Cap, that source of funding has been crippled as well. That leaves only painful options.

Dr. Lynn Fusco, Alden’s Superintendent of Schools, has voiced concern over the long-term sustainability of the system as it stands. “You get to a point where either you’re going to be programmatically, educationally insolvent, or you’re going to have no money.” Many districts have been using their financial reserves, the aforementioned fund balances, to minimize their proposed property tax increases and limit cuts to programs and staff. Alden has been doing so as well, but what happens when the fund balance is gone, when there is no money left? Dr. Fusco added, “Can a school district go bankrupt? That’s the question that’s been asked for probably the past three years, and now they’re starting to investigate. Well what happens? How does that work? Can a public agency go bankrupt? In the past you couldn’t because you would just levy the taxes that are necessary to maintain the school district. Now you can’t do it because you have a cap.”

Let’s take a look at Governor Cuomo’s Tax Cap. On the surface, it appears to limit the increase in property taxes to 2% over the previous year. It isn’t nearly that simple, but it seems to me that the governor would like people to think about it in just that simplistic of a manner. According to Governor Cuomo’s website, the Tax Cap is described as follows:

           1. The Tax Cap applies to all school districts and local governments (i.e. counties, towns, villages and special districts) and is set at the rate of inflation or 2 percent, whichever is less.

           2. To preserve local control, the plan empowers residents to go over the cap with a 60 percent majority vote for school districts and 60 percent of the local governing body for local governments when they believe it is in the best interest of the community.

           3. Only limited exceptions are allowed for the cap, including one-time needs for large legal settlements or limited pension growth.

           4. To encourage cost savings, local governments are rewarded for consolidation of services. (governor.ny.gov)

The segment of the description that seems to permeate the public airwaves is the first point mentioned—that the cap is 2% or the rate of inflation, whichever is less. This is totally misleading the public. There are numerous exemptions that can be factored into a district’s tax cap for a given year. According to Paul Hutschenreuter, the President of Alden’s Board of Education, the tax increase for the 2013-14 school year could be as high as approximately 4.6% without violating the Tax Cap and without needing a 60% supermajority to pass. How is this possible? That number is more than double what the governor would have you believe is the highest tax increase available to districts without triggering the controversial 60% supermajority clause. It’s possible because there are numerous circumstances that can be legally factored into the Tax Cap figure. These include the following possibilities:

A growth factor reflecting the “quantity change” in taxable property values in the base year. This factor is based on actual physical changes to taxable property such as new construction of homes, stores and offices and not mere changes in the assessed value of existing, unchanged taxable properties. These taxes can be added to the allowable (capped) levy in the first year after the value of the change is reflected on the local tax roll.

Tort settlements or awards whose costs exceed 5 percent of the tax levy in the base year. A tort is a type of lawsuit seeking
damages for personal injuries caused by negligence. Tort settlements exceeding 5 percent of a jurisdiction’s tax levy are rare.

Capital costs (including debt service) for school districts, which cannot borrow money for capital purposes without voter approval.

Pension contribution increases that exceed two percentage points of covered payroll.

A carryover of up to 1.5 percent of unused tax levy growth to the following year. For example, if a city raises taxes by 2 percent in a year when its cap is 3 percent, 1 percent can be added to the subsequent year’s levy cap. (empirecenter.org)

My belief is that if our district, or any district for that matter, put forth a budget for a public vote that includes a tax increase of more than 2% but less than the actual maximum tax increase allowed by the law, it would lead to voter confusion and resentment toward the school district. For example, Alden could potentially ask for the 4.6% increase mentioned earlier. That figure would not trigger the 60% supermajority clause. Voters would be likely to suspect the district was somehow trying to pull a fast one or “playing politics.” A proposed budget of this sort would almost certainly be defeated under the current circumstances. Voters have been bombarded with misleading information from Governor Cuomo implying that their taxes would be spared an increase surpassing the mythical 2% figure.

Another problem with the Tax Cap legislation is the notion of the 60% supermajority that is now needed to pass a budget that exceeds the calculated tax cap levy. How is this constitutional? It boils down to some votes carrying more weight than others, completely contradicting the concept of one person, one vote.

The combination of the Tax Cap and reduced effective levels of state aid are forcing districts to lower the quality of education that they provide to students. While it’s true that education is a multibillion dollar industry, it is also true that it is an industry unlike any other. Our product is of the human variety; we are molding minds. School districts cannot raise revenue by traditional methods of business, so the cuts to programs and staffs continue. We have already started damaging our products—our students—through the elimination of quality teachers who have seen their careers pulled out from under them. We have seen students with fewer choices in the amount and quality of available electives. We have seen students packed into larger and larger classes where the amount of attention from their teachers is inevitably reduced. Extracurricular activities have been whittled down or chopped completely, leaving students deprived of the well-rounded educational experience that they deserve.

Education should serve as a springboard to the future successes of our students, not as a cliff that they just want to jump off of as soon as they get the chance. It was 28º Fahrenheit in Albany the day that Governor Cuomo took office. He subsequently moved into his mansion while the students of New York have been left out in the cold.

 

 

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I’m a teacher. I teach. My definition of teaching includes creating an atmosphere in my classroom where there is meaningful interaction between myself, my students, and our shared subject matter. I’m a teacher. I teach. But not nearly as much as I used to…

In previous years, with previous students, in a previous educational climate, I had the ability and the authority to create an environment that was conducive to learning. My students were given opportunities to explore, to be curious, to find out just what interested them, to enjoy themselves. There was time to discuss and appreciate literature, time to develop reading and writing skills, and time to make connections between the real world and the sundry ones that exist on the written page.

In more recent years, with my current students, in today’s educational climate, I no longer have that same freedom to develop my students’ intellectual curiosity. Much of the time that was devoted to the aforementioned activities of days gone by is now filled with mandated testing. The list of mandatory examinations grows each year. This year’s crop of tests sprouting in Albany and Washington and shipped to a school near you include pre-assessments, interim assessments, post-assessments, Regents exams, Common Core assessments, and local exams. Word in the corridor is that next year might bring another round of interim assessments and potentially the addition of PARCC assessments. I must tell you, I think I threw up in my mouth a little writing the last two sentences.

Adding to the frustration—the rules keep changing. I’m not griping about steady progress; I’m griping about the contradictory and schizophrenic directives that districts and teachers are given by the state. One month we’re told that specific aspects of the Common Core must be implemented by such and such a date; the following month we are told that things have changed. One week we’re told that we must shift a specific skill set to a specific grade level; the next week we’re told to ignore that. One day we’re told that the students who are currently freshmen will be required to pass a new set of exams before they graduate; the next day we’re told that maybe that requirement will be altered. From minute to minute, changes (or rumors of potential changes) come down from the state. No one knows what to believe. If I ran my classroom in this manner, my students would begin to ignore my directives (and rightly so). They would look at me as if I had no clue about what I was doing.

Pick up any major newspaper and peruse the headlines regarding education. There will be no shortage of articles. I’m confident that you’ll find at least one about mandatory testing in our schools. Read it. The article that you’ll find will mention tests, state aid, teacher evaluations, tax caps, tax increases, budgets, opting out, fund balances, program cuts, and Governor Cuomo. It won’t say much about students. They seem to be the least significant factor in this whole mess. They are being reduced to numbers. They’re cogs in the machine. Data.

I can’t speak with certainty about Governor Cuomo’s motives for pushing his agenda down the collective throats of New York’s school districts, residents, teachers, and students; however, it would not surprise me if political ambitions were at the heart of the matter. What other logical explanation could explain the maneuvers he has executed? In the name of improving education, he has pushed the implementation of an array of initiatives, including the nauseating amount of mandatory testing of our students. The testing he champions is partly tied to teacher evaluations. The sound bites generated by his actions seem to be part of an effort to hoodwink the voters of New York—New York for now, and a larger population down the line. He would lead us to believe that his actions are improving the educational process. That’s nonsense. It seems to me that he is much more interested in busting unions, forcing consolidation of school districts, and taking care of the affluent portions of the state that could benefit him when the time comes to run for reelection to the governorship or to make a run for the White House. He has systematically driven down the level of education available to our students. His “fiscally responsible” combination of reduced state aid, the property tax cap, and an increased level of mandatory testing and services are devastating the financial and educational flexibility of our schools. Funding is depleted, yet costs continue to increase. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that districts are forced to cut programs, faculty, and staff to stay afloat. The students pay the price.

It’s getting to the point where the only available funds are those earmarked for testing, preparing for testing, evaluating the testing, adjusting the testing, testing the testing, and testing the tests that test the tests. Confusing? Yes. That’s just the way our students feel.

Here’s a real-world example of how all of these factors are impacting my way of teaching and, therefore, my students. When I finish writing this article, I must go and grade interim assessments. This is important (sarcastic) because the grades must be reported to the state in order to compare them to the pre-assessments. It must be done quickly in order to get results so that I can alter the course of my classroom instruction to ensure that my students do well on their upcoming post-assessments. Those will need to be completed just before I administer final exams. Instead of enriching the content and atmosphere within my classroom, time will be spent generating numbers.

This course of action is creating more stress for students, teachers, administrators, and parents. Students are bored. Who wants to be constantly taking tests? Teachers are discouraged. Those that have held on to their positions are frustrated by what they see happening in their classrooms, by what they are forced to do within their classrooms, and by what they are no longer able to do within their classrooms. Administrators are overwhelmed. Those that remain spend an inordinate amount of time satisfying state requirements tied to all of these mandatory tests and the associated teacher evaluations. Parents are angry. Those who look closely at this situation know that their kids are paying the price. They’re paying now with unneeded stress and boredom, fewer academic and extracurricular choices, and they’ll continue to pay. What affect will diminishing the educational process have on these kids moving forward? They’re less likely to be life-long learners, and their intellectual curiosity will not blossom.

Let’s remove the excessive testing from our schools. The current educational system benefits the wrong people. Certain companies reap massive profits, politicians gain votes, and the students get cheated. It pains me to see what is happening to these kids. They’re here to learn; unfortunately, all they’re learning is that they hate school as it exists now. I’m a teacher. I teach. But not nearly as much as I used to…

Okay, if you read the initial entry on this rather sparsely worded blog (February 27, 2010), you’ll see that I have a desire to lose weight and get in better shape — both for the health of it and because I’m as vain as the next person.  This desire to become a lean, mean machine is in direct opposition to my desire to consume massive amounts of foods and beverages.  You’ll also note that at the time of that posting, I weighed 244 pounds.  As of this moment, I weigh 228.1 pounds — not that I’m paying close attention to such things.  While it is good that I’m down a little since that day back in 2010, it is also true that at this pace I won’t reach my goal weight until sometime after I’m about 112 years old.  At that point, screw it; give me the ice cream.  I mean, who cares if you’re the fattest old guy in the nursing home?  

Today, though, I would like to start my transformation into that thin guy that I see in my mind’s eye.  I’ve dreamed of getting down to my goal weight of 172 pounds, seemingly since I was in about third grade.  I’ve started and stopped and restarted and quit and got it going again so often that I wouldn’t even want to hazard a guess as to how many times the words “this time I mean it” have escaped from my lips.  Well — THIS TIME I MEAN IT!!!  

It must be true because I wrote it out in all capital letters.  

I’ve got the charts going, the apps on my phone that do everything but perform liposuction, the support of my wife, and a newly recharged desire to make it work.  

The plan is to get healthy sooner rather than later — and maintain it — until I’m 112 years old — then I’ll fatten back up and be the jolly fatso in the nursing home that everyone will think is so cute as he eats container after container of ice cream. 

“Yesterday”                           

There never seemed to be a perfect time
There never was a moment we both knew
I wanted to wait or you wanted to…

And now that future has slipped into yesterday

There were the times when we stood on firm ground
Those were the times we did not want to change
Those are times that we would never exchange…

And yet that future has slipped into yesterday

We had those times we did not know we’d last
During those times we could not take the chance
If only we’d known how we’d learn to dance…

And so that future has slipped into yesterday

And so that future has slipped into yesterday
so that future has slipped into yesterday
that future has slipped into yesterday
future has slipped into yesterday
has slipped into yesterday
slipped into yesterday
into yesterday
yesterday
yes
no

(The following was written in response to a blog entry posted by one of my students.  His post can be read at http://ahsonlinepublishingjakew.blogspot.com/2012/10/d1.html)

 

Jake —  Thanks for the kind words. As I’m reading them, my eyes are becoming moist.  The moisture is accumulating and forming droplets of moisture which are now sliding down my face and making my cheeks moist.  The moist vessels of liquid are gaining momentum and are now taking the plunge and landing on my new Bulldog shirt, making it moist as well.  I am concerned that the salt in the moisture is ruining my new Bulldog shirt, and this is making me angry.  My anger is causing my skin to turn green, my eyes have turned yellowish-green, and my muscles have suddenly enlarged, shredding my new Bulldog shirt.  This is increasing my level of anger; I’m out of control! Gotta go! Thanks a lot Jake!!

A few weeks ago, one of my good friends reached a milestone birthday — the Big 4-0.  To mark the occasion, his wife asked many of us that have known him for decades to write down stories from days gone by.  Marc, the birthday boy, read the stories aloud and tried to figure out who wrote each one.  When his wife, Amy, first proposed the idea, I thought that I would have no trouble coming up with an appropriate story.  Then I wondered, what is appropriate for such an occasion?  I didn’t want to reveal an embarrassing historic event that he had conveniently kept out of his marital conversations.  The following account is what in my estimation walked the line between funny-enough-to-be-worthwhile and not-funny-enough-to-send-him-to-divorce-court:

“Marc is Forty?”

Forty.  It’s an even number, yet it carries such odd connotations.  When we were much younger, forty sounded old.  Now it sounds just right.  There are certain expectations about turning forty. Some you’ll find are accurate; some are overblown.  It’ll be up to you to figure out which expectations fall in which category.

When Amy first mentioned the idea of writing stories about you, my immediate reaction was that I had a million little narratives that I could string together.  This is true.  Deciding on one particular story proved to be more challenging.  There’s something about putting stories down on paper that lends authority to them, makes them tougher to deny, makes them tougher to accept.  The decisions we make as teenagers and twenty-somethings seem, looking back on them, as gutsy, hilarious, perverted in some way, or just plain stupid.  Marc, you’ve made your share of all of those.


Let’s look at one of your choices that fits into two of those categories: hilarious and perverted.  (At this time, I’d like to make a preemptive apology to Amy – Sorry).  Back in our Ted’s days, we would all gather in the back room prior to starting a shift.  There would be anywhere from five to ten or so employees hanging out, waiting for our shift to begin.  Generally, all of the female employees would change into their brown skirts and orange shirts en masse in the bathroom.  That would be followed by all of the male employees taking their turn at changing into our uniforms.


The way I remember it, Marc was running late on this particular day.  As a result of his tardiness, he ended up going into the bathroom to change by himself.  The rest of us were already donning the brown and orange, waiting just outside the bathroom until it was time to go up front.  The clothes that we were wearing when we arrived at work were stored on shelves in the bathroom, so at this time the shelving units held the street clothes of all of us plus the clothes of the employees who were just about to finish their shift.


There were two female employees that stood out among the workers from the first shift on that Saturday.  Rhonda and Dawn were best friends.  They had certain physical attributes that seemed to please Marc to no end.  Truth be told, workers from both genders couldn’t help but notice these two young ladies.  I think even Joyce N*****, the permanent French fry girl, had a crush on them.  Hell, a blind customer would drool in their vicinity.  Rhonda and Dawn were famous for wearing barely-there mini-skirts.


Anyway, Marc was in the bathroom changing.  Moments before we were to go up front and assume our positions, Marc burst out of the bathroom with Rhonda’s mini-skirt in hand; in fact, he was holding it double-fisted at about chest level.  He gave an excited look to all of us, locked eyes momentarily with each person in his audience, and proceeded to bury his face into the material and inhale like he just broke the surface of the ocean after being held under for three minutes.  He was one happy camper.  My memory of what occurred afterward is fuzzy; I know we were all laughing hysterically.  It was difficult to immediately face the public to take their hot dog orders, even more difficult to look at Rhonda without picturing her skirt plastered to Marc’s face.


That occurred more than two decades ago, one of my favorite memories of that time period.  It was over in seconds, but it captured the spontaneous spirit, comic timing, and sometime irreverent attitude of the young Mr. Marc R******.


Now you’re forty. Forty.


Time flies and people change.  Your decisions nowadays tend to be much more grounded.  The results of the best of your decisions are all around you today.  You have a beautiful wife and family, the love and support of a tight group of friends, and you’ve managed to maintain your incredible sense of humor.  Happy birthday my friend!


Eighty – now that’s old!

This is my first blog, my first posting, my first cyber-sentence.  In other words, I don’t have the slightest clue about what I’m doing.  At least I have firm ideas about the content that I plan to write about in this space.  Well, that’s not entirely true, and by not entirely true I mean completely false.  I’ll probably write about the minutia of my life, little things that pertain only to me.  If you’re interested, come along for the ride; if you get bored and feel that jamming toothpicks under your fingernails would be more enjoyable than continuing to read, jump off the bus at any time.

Still here?  Okay c’mon then…

I weighed myself just prior to beginning this post.  Climbing up on the scale to check my weight winded me a little.  If you think about it, the very act of weighing yourself is exercise; the scale doubles as a miniature StairMaster.  I actually weighed myself two times in a row, so I was exhausted.  I weighed in at 244 pounds—exactly 72 pounds more than I’d like to weigh at this point in my life.  You see, there are three things you should know about me:

1.  I eat too much.

2.  I exercise too little.

3.  I weigh too much.

I have a hunch, an inkling, that the third item on the list might—just might—have some small relationship to the first two.  Maybe.  I’m not convinced just yet.  Time will tell.

I’m not enormous.  I’m obviously not skinny.  But I’m too big, too big for comfort.  I’ve been charting my weight, on and off, for years.  The charts basically look like sine waves or readings from an EKG.  I’d like to change the charts, flatten them out, bring the slope downward.

I suppose that my ongoing battle with the mini-StairMaster in my bathroom will be one of the recurring subjects of this blog.  Other items sure to be touched upon include acting, poker, teaching, writing, family, loving, and living.  The title of the blog is Salmagundi.  One definition of the word is any mixture or miscellany.  I like it as a title since it gives me permission to ramble on about any and all subjects.  I will.

The bus is just pulling out.  I’m glad you’re aboard.  Feel free to ask the driver questions or make comments at any time.