Schoolkids, Once Again, Become Albany’s Pawns

May 2, 2003

by Mark J. Grossman.

Will the New York State Legislature’s new school aid package, which restores much of the cut proposed by Gov. George Pataki, really make a difference for Long Island taxpayers? I think not.

That’s because legislation adopted earlier this week to move the school budget voting day back two weeks to June 3 — legislation passed despite the governor’s very strong objection — raises false expectations neither the state nor the school districts will be able to meet. “Manna from heaven” — new state aid money — will not soon start flowing, and the threat of steep property tax hikes is not over.

The reality is that this new scenario may set the stage for Albany’s biggest political battle yet, and when all is said and done, parents may very well be left empty-handed … again.

The rationale for the change of date is a good one. Restore a portion of the governor’s proposed cuts in state aid and give schools enough time to rework their 2003- 2004 operating budgets so districts can, presumably, lower their projected property tax rate hikes — which now average a whopping 12 percent statewide.

A major roadblock to this plan: Pataki. The governor has used strong and threatening language, calling the legislature’s move “irresponsible” and stating that legislators “will be held accountable” for this action.

So, it is no surprise that he has vowed to use his veto power to prevent the legislature’s new spending plan from becoming law.

And indeed, he has the calendar on his side. The governor has 10 days to either sign, or veto, the new spending plan. If he takes his time and vetoes it at or near the 10th day, it leaves little time in the budgeting process for the legislature to complete the laborious task of considering the 100-plus line-by-line overrides.

That puts school districts right back where they started — in a state aid guessing-game. And don’t expect a legislative override to come easily.

While the bill to extend the voting date passed both houses overwhelmingly, the spending package passed the Assembly with just 107 votes — barely more than the two-thirds needed to override a veto. Once Pataki and the State Conservative Party, concerned about the tax hikes that will be needed to pay for these new revenues, begin to exert pressure, it’s doubtful that the Assembly will be able to muster the votes for an override.

Another problem involves budget strategy. With many school districts facing their third consecutive year of state aid cuts, many of them — especially the poorer ones — have run down their reserve funds. In fact, many districts like mine, South Country, have been planning on using funds restored by the legislature to help rebuild our dwindling fund balance.

This fiscally prudent strategy, which would help bring many aid- dependent districts back into the good graces of the Wall Street bond raters, is now seriously undermined as taxpayers may now expect school district tax hikes to drop as a result of the proposed aid restoration.

Others may choose to propose restoring much-needed academic programs that have been cut as a result of three years of declining state aid. That’s risky, because the aid picture is far from being clear. Again, it’s the poorer, aid-dependent districts, much more than their richer counterparts, that take it on the chin as they face these challenges.

Declining state support is compounded this year by huge hikes in expenses such as health insurance, state retirement contributions and fuel oil. Add to that unfunded — and costly — state mandates such as the new Regents standards and the federal No Child Left Behind regulations, and many districts are truly near fiscal crisis.

So while it may seem to many that the State Legislature has come to the rescue, the reality is that our children will, once again, wind up being political pawns in Albany’s annual budget battle.

And the mammoth effort districts will have undertaken to move the voting date to June 3 and inform the public of this change — with new newsletters, altered calendars and extra board meetings — will very likely be for naught.

Mark J. Grossman, of East Patchogue, is a member of the board of education of the South Country Central School District. He heads a Bohemia-based public relations consulting firm.

Mark Grossman, Schoolkids, Once Again, Become Albany’s Pawns.
Newsday, May 2, 2003, Page A40.