Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Budget Passes with over 65% Voting "Yes"

Congratulations and thank you to the community for overwhelmingly voting to support this year's school budget. It is a victory for the district and the children of the district.

But, it is only the beginning. We still have systematic problems that need to be addressed. I am quite confident that the district taxpayers and the bargaining units can find local solutions to national problems if we avoid falling back on established party lines and really work to address the issues facing the individual taxpayer and the real interests of the entire rank and file.

Finally, as I have said previously, the message from this budget passage is just that, the budget passed because of academic preservation combined with fiscal responsibility. It is a message on the budget, not on anything else. The need for mandate relief from Albany has not changed. We must work as a community to lobby our representatives for change.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Where Do We Fit In Relative to Our Peers?

A question that has come up several times recently is where do we fit in relative to other schools in Westchester in relation to budget increases and tax increases. I also added the amount of reserves used.

Here is a list of schools with which we are often compared:

School/Budget Increase/Tax Increase*/Reserves Used


(For other schools, see their district's website. It is generally listed under the Board of Education link.)

* Used the New Castle number when available for comparison.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Budget and Messages?

As always, my usual disclaimers apply. I am writing as an individual. I do not speak for the School Board or anyone else but myself. No district resources were used to write this post. Your mileage may vary (YMMV). Shake well before using, etc.

Recently, the New Castle Citizens For Responsible Education (NCCRE) a group of 5 Chappaqua school district residents published an open letter to the New Castle Community suggesting that residents vote "No" on the CCSD proposed budget on May 17th. Apparently, they are not opposed to the budget per se but they want you to vote "no" to send a message to "the School Board, Administration, School Unions, Union Leadership and Albany legislators that the continued budget and tax increases are not sustainable and that State Mandates must change."

First, their actual message of changing or eliminating state mandates is a good one. So good in fact that despite the group's claim to the contrary, at the CCSD School Board's January 11th meeting, we passed a motion proposed by me based on a similar motion passed by the Westchester-Putnam School Board Association that calls for mandate relief. Here is a link to that resolution. To be clear, I fully and unequivocally support mandate relief.

But, their method for getting this message out is seriously flawed. There is no, and will be no, link to voting "no" on the budget and getting this message out to the community. The only valid assumption about the budget, should the proposed budget get voted down on May 17th, is that the proposed budget was voted down. Complete stop.

The Vote
This entire exercise by the NCCRE is simply an attempt to change the vote from a vote on the merits of the budget to a vote on mandates. I urge you to read the line in the voting booth they are asking you to vote "no" on.

It says:
"Resolved: That the Board of Education of the Chappaqua Central School District be and hereby is authorized to expend the sum of $111,448,488 set forth in the School District Budget for the School Year 2011-2012, and that the necessary tax be levied thereof."

There is nothing in that language to suggest this is a vote on mandates or messages, it is clearly a vote on the proposed budget.

The Message
The best and appropriate way to send a message is to do so in a clear and unambiguous manner. Changing state mandates, especially ones that are constitutionally protected, will only come with a ground swell of public support that threatens financial well being and the re-election prospects of our legislators in Albany. It will not come from voting down a local budget. In fact, the only message sent from voting down a local budget is that we have a community divided.

Additionally, in the likely event the budget passes, they have set themselves up for the claim by our legislators that the community does not want mandate relief as evidenced by the budget vote. As the vote on the ballot is for the budget not mandate relief and they are not mutually exclusive, it is quite probable that most of the community is like me in supporting both the budget and getting mandate relief from Albany.

The Process
Should the budget get voted down, the Board would then have to decide how to proceed. The Board's choices are to present a new proposed budget and a new contingency budget, to keep them the same and have another vote, or to go straight to the contingency budget. The Board can also decide to change the amount of reserves used to offset any tax rate changes.

In fact, in these times of fiscal austerity the Board cannot know if a budget was voted down because of some tangential message, because we are spending too much, or because residents are upset with the amount of cuts or the increase in class size and want us to raise the budget. There is no one message to take from a rejected budget other than a divided community.

Budget Bargaining
Further, the decision to advocate for a "no" vote is tantamount to bargaining in bad faith. The School Board this year took great pains to craft a budget that reflected a broad swatch of the community. Included in that was input from the NCCRE. At every budget meeting they had a member speak and ask questions. Many of their suggestions were incorporated in the final proposal. In fact, the large amount of reserves committed is a reflection of their input and suggestions.

The five members of the NCCRE themselves in their opening paragraph of the letter state that the contingency budget is only $132,000 less than the proposed budget so a "no" vote does not take away from educational programming or the excellent quality of the Chappaqua School system. If they think the proposed and contingency budgets are good and fair ones, why the "no" vote suggestion?

The NCCRE bargained in what I assumed was good faith for a budget that they could live with and now that they got what they wanted, they are suggesting it get voted down to send some sort of message. That is not bargaining in good faith. They want you to vote "no" for reasons that have nothing to do with the budget itself.

Penny Wise, Pound Foolish
This NCCRE plan is a plan that, like my mother used to say to me, is "cutting off your nose to spite your face". The NCCRE members are willing to sacrifice their real estate values to send a message to the teacher's union and their elected officials in Albany despite they themselves having been active participants in negotiating for this proposed budget. They choose to ignore that home buyers in this community are motivated by the school system and that they will not move here if we start voting down budgets that are reasonable ones to begin with. They are willing to vote "no" to send a message that has no immediate effect on taxes or that at best will save them an amount on their yearly taxes that will take them 20 or 30 years to make up based on the resulting loss in real estate value. It makes no sense.

Contingency Budget
Then, in order to convince you to vote "no" these five residents make certain assumptions and claims in their letter that are not necessarily valid. In the same first paragraph mentioned above, they correctly point out that the contingency budget is only $132,000 less than the proposed budget, but there is an implied assumption that if the budget is voted down, that the contingency budget will automatically kick in.

That is an erroneous assumption. If the budget is voted down on May 17th, as stated above, the School Board would have several options including presenting a new Proposed Budget, a new Contingency Budget as well as adjusting the amount of reserves committed to offsetting the tax increase.

"Real Budget Increase"?
In their reasons to vote "no", they try to come up with a concept of "Real Budget Increase" that is erroneously calculated. They have used a projected actual spending number for this year that is incorrect. This year's approved budget was $109,391,348. But, that number is not the amount authorized to be spent. As one of their members repeatedly pointed out at Board budget meetings, the actual spending budget was $110,800,000 as there was a reserve of approximately $1.4 million used on the expense side this year. The "Real Budget Increase" is actually $688,000, or approximately one half of one percent.

They also erroneously try to use the projected surplus as a reduction in spending this year without accounting for a potential surplus next year. They seem to make assumptions only when it suits their purposes and not use them consistently throughout the analysis.

Tax Analysis
They also claim the real property tax increase is 5.2% not 2.11% if reserves aren't used. Well guess what? Reserves are being used. So, the real property tax increase is 2.11%. They are correct in saying that the reserves are previously collected but unspent tax dollars, however, if they want to be intellectually honest in making the claim that the real tax increase is 5.2% because of the use of reserves, they would then need to restate all the previous tax changes (20 years?) to say that the actual tax rate in years when no reserves were used but we spent less than budgeted was lower than it was claimed. I strongly supported returning as much of the reserves to the taxpayers as prudently reasonable. Now, after the Board committed to using more reserves than the Administration initially recommended, the NCCRE is claiming it does not matter what number is used, the tax rate is really 5.2%. Under that theory, we might as well eliminate the use of reserves and make the tax rate increase 5.2% since that is the basis on which they are making their decision.

Causal Relation Confusion
When they make the case that enrollment is declining, staff levels are being reduced yet compensation levels are increasing, they are 100% correct, but I fail to see the correlation to voting down the budget.

In fact, they are making the argument to vote for the budget. In spite of a significant increase in pension expenses and other employee contractual obligations, this budget increase is less than the amount of the increase in expenses. The Board and Administration is being fiscally prudent in maintaining the academic excellence in our schools while limiting the budget increase to an amount that is less than the increase in contractual costs. What are they suggesting the Board do different from what we have done? Nothing, they just want you to vote : “no" to send a message unrelated to the current budget.

Contractual Givebacks
The five members of NCCRE suggest that the Board, in accepting the $1.1 million in givebacks from a union that has seen approximate 7% raises the last three years, could have imposed a unilateral freeze on teacher salary increases while the teachers had a valid contract in place. It appears as if they are suggesting that we should have accepted nothing less than a freeze.

First, of course we suggested a freeze to the CCT, it was rejected, but it is unrealistic to expect agreement to a freeze when an employee unit is only voluntarily reopening a contract that has another year to run at higher compensation. Second, with a valid contract in place, the appropriate way to analyze the savings made is versus the contract and in the event of an extension of that contract versus what would be imposed under the Triborough Amendment to the Taylor Law. In this case, imposed step increases. In this proposed budget, the district is saving $1.1 million versus the existing contract. In the following year, the district will be paying $600,000 less than we would have had to if we came to no agreement on a contract and the Triborough Amendment was imposed. Those are real and significant savings.

The NCCRE would have you believe we live in some theoretical world where a union will rip up an existing contract and offer to give back everything they negotiated on salary AND, not only that, what the law says they are entitled to. To assume this could or would happen is disingenuous on their part.

School Board Public Support
Finally, the NCCRE makes the claim that the School Board "has not publically supported or advocated for mandate relief even though it is recommended by the School District Budget Advisory Group, the Westchester Putnam School Board Association and the New York State School Board Association." As stated above, this ignores the resolutions passed and the Board's public support of both the Westchester-Putnam School Board Association and the New York State School Board Association's public lobbying efforts to address mandates.

The NCCRE is also directly aware of the fact that the Budget Advisory Group recommendations will be on the May 24th School Board agenda. To claim that we are specifically ignoring a recommendation by an advisory group is incorrect. While there is no guarantee we will accept that recommendation, we have made it very clear to them that we will be considering it. While the consideration does come one week after the budget vote, the timing of that is not relevant to this year's budget vote. A decision to accept, reject or modify the recommendation will not have any effect on the budget numbers, even if we had voted on it a month ago.

The group's claim of lack of public support also ignores the very fact that they had representation on the Budget Advisory Committee Mandate subgroup. It was the School Board that established the committee and suggested that one of the subcommittees be focused on addressing mandate relief. If the Board creating a group to address mandate relief with the charge that there were no areas they could not address is not publically supporting mandate relief, then I am not sure how we could ever satisfy them.

The Vote
Let me be clear. The vote on Tuesday May 17th is whether or not to support the academic and fiscally responsible budget proposed by the Board of Ed. Mandate relief is not on the ballot.

I advocate you vote "YES" on the budget and support mandate relief by contacting our legislators in Albany.