A Few Things to Keep in Mind as First New Rochelle School Budget Meeting Approaches

Written By: Deprecated User

My experience of the average citizen in New Rochelle is that he/she is fair, hardworking and committed to a sense of country, community and values. For many citizens, some or all of these have been challenged in the past few years by the sheer weight of a repressed economy and the lack of direct and focus relief offered by our elected officials at every level in the nation.

There are some indications that things may be turning around to some degree. However, make no mistake about it, we have many long and difficult days ahead and, if you are a property owner and taxpayer in New Rochelle, these days may be darker than we might like to admit. Yes there is some light, but most of it is still filtered behind tinted glass. The bright hope of transparency and community participation has not been realized on any level; national, state, local community and, the topic of today’s report, school district. I do believe that there have been changes for the better in the district beginning with some relatively new trustees who appear to want to improve matters and get closer to the taxpayer. Let’s hope that this is the case. I think we will know a good deal more when the proposed tax increase is made known and public hearings are held.

Bob Cox and others have decried the lack of hard data; put more simply, knowledge of what is contained in district budgets or what goes on in deliberations and subsequent outcomes, such as the contract the all-powerful labor union, FUSE which has pretty much had its way in the collective bargaining process for years in New Rochelle. It is worse than that; recently I drafted a brief paper on the Taylor Law to examine this further; this Law forbids either lockouts and strikes in the school district. Surprisingly, few voters know this and this likely contributes to the lack of forceful questions from the community on collective bargaining.

My topic today deals with the question of school budgets, property taxes, and per student costs in New Rochelle. There isn’t any hard data the vote can easily lay h/her hands on to make informed judgments on the district and guide the reader toward questioning what is put forth in any district presentation. But, I do know enough about the topic based on two highly important sources; they are essentially unimpeachable and have been in the business of informing New York taxpayers about key aspects of their lives in this state for many years. They are the Public Policy Institute and the Business Council. Both work out of Albany and they offer a great deal and I am in contact with them to get even more current information. But, what I am about to offer should do enough to enlighten the reader and to put some key tax and budget facts into perspective and guide in the search of specific information from the district.

The information that I will refer from comes from the Public Policy Institute’s annual School Tax Watch. Each year on or about mid-may they publish their findings to coincide with the annual districts tax requests. On May 12, 2009, the Institute indicated that districts were going to “hold the line” in 2009-2010 proposing average per pupil spending and tax increases to increase by 3%. The average state wide for per pupil spending would rise to $19,461. Bear in mind that this is state-wide and also reflect on the fact that the five largest state municipalities are excluded from these findings. One of these in Yonkers: the others New York City, Albany, Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse.

The report indicates that only 61 of the 657 districts in the report stated that they would hold spending below the -0.2 percent level (the inflation rate in place). New Rochelle reported it would increase spending by 3.2%. Why the data in this report is so important is that is comes directly from state-mandated information. The Institute gets the data from the state as soon as they get it and this data includes student tax and spending amounts, projected enrollment figures, as well as district forecasts on budgeted spending and property taxes. In Westchester, only Mt. Vernon (failed to meet state deadlines and Yonkers, one of the five largest cities in the state, are excluded. A total of 38 districts are part of this report and New Rochelle represents the highest student enrollment figures for the County.

Lets quickly look at New Rochelle’ projections: (1) Projected Enrollment is 10,831, (2) Budgeted 2009-10 Spending is $229,462,969, (3) 2009-10 School Property Tax Levy is $176,747,776, (4) 2009-10 Budgeted Spending Per Pupil is $21,186, (5) Per Pupil Spending Change is 3.2%, 2009-2010 Tax Levy Per Pupil is $16,319, and (6) Per-Pupil Tax Levy Change is 1.4%.

I cannot go into great depth on these projections and I am as interested as you might be on the actual amounts when made known. I can say that what disturbs me at this point is a much lower tax levy per pupil then would customarily be expected in a city of our size. That reflects also in the Budgeted Spending per pupil which shows at $21,186. This is in relative terms, quite a low amount based on the size of the city and leads to the inevitable questions on the reliability of the Assessment rolls given to the district. If they are accurate, fairness compels us to congratulate the district on its forecasted Budgeted spending per pupil which seems quite low for a district of 10,801 students. In fact, despite differences in enrollments, New Rochelle has the highest figure for all districts in Westchester in the study while having the next to lowest budgeted spending per pupil. I am troubled by this and would very much like to see actual numbers from both Assessor and District on tax rolls as well as closely examining the final budget tallies.

Any reader of this sort of data must look at numbers both absolutely and relatively. Absolute means what the numbers are and relative is what you compare them to. I looked at our neighbors in the County more closely than other areas in the Greater New York City community as well as outside of that domain. There ix no doubt that proximity to New York City translates into higher everything. No district in Westchester profiled close to ours in the sense of what you expected to see. For example, the Scarsdale tax base supports the per capita cost base. New Rochelle was almost an anomaly. The closest parallel I could find was in Suffolk County where per capita costs were close to ours as a rule and School Property Tax Levies rather low overall. But, most of these communities have a more modest commercial base than New Rochelle and, so, there are questions to ask and answers needed.

As I understand the roles, relations and responsibilities between the city and district to be, the Assessor turns over computer printouts of the tax rolls to the district for planning purposes. I cannot validate this figure in terms of the commercial real estate realities, the presence of so many abatement and tax deferral deals, the lack of commercial growth, and the proliferation of non-taxable churches and other non-profits in our business district and elsewhere. One of the reasons to be wary of the district’s push toward legal counsel is whether it is seeking to co opt the traditional assessor role or whether the agenda is larger – I cannot see it resting on “large commercial taxpayers” as that would be counter intuitive to the city’s so called “sustainability project.” What I fear is the earmarking of a class of residential taxpayers, such as multiple dwellings like cooperatives and condominiums. Both have recently be subjected to an attempt to place them under the Commercial Ratio formula in the state and both are vulnerable given the archaic Business Corporate Law that governs them.

Before summarizing some things an attendee should concentrate on when attending a school tax meeting presentation, let me also say that you likely know that school taxes, by definition if not design, are literally unfair, not just regressive, but punishing in ways that other taxes, such as income taxes, are not. For example, when you do your federal income taxes, some pains are taken to ensure fairness and equity. You can claim deductions, get child credits, make provisions for IRA savings, and so many more that remove it from the “one size fits all category.” However, school taxes are in a class by themselves. To get the dubious honor of supporting the district’s system, you must be a property holder. You may or may not have children. To get a pass on these taxes, you can have 20 children and rent an apartment. None of this has anything to do with usage — there is no way that you pay in accordance with what value added the system provides for you and your family. You could be a senior citizen, empty nester, subsisting on a low fixed income and you must pay school taxes.

Lets for the sake of discussion, leave the district and the adequacy and correctness explicit in its budget process and implicit in its willingness to reach out to the community to take some form of empathetic corrective action — maybe to tie school taxes to the inflation rate as the Public Policy Institute would support, even expect. This brings us to what the system costs and as we know, it is largely a question of what is contained in the union contract with FUSE and what the many exempt members (managers and staff not covered by the contract make).

Clearly this seems to be the most fruitful area of analysis. Many districts see this and are making adjustments to their operating budgets. Mamaroneck, for one, is cutting staff and programs. Other districts have seen exempt staff increases and bonuses cancelled..New Rochelle has done nothing on either end and this is something we have regrettably seen happen here time after time. I strongly recommend that many questions be put to the board about WHY they systematically refuse to entertain either suggestion. If we presume that the district has done an exemplary job in managing student per capita costs, I might take a very defensible position that strong and appropriate staff and management cost cutting is required both to ease undue pressure on the taxpayer but also to raise the amount of funds available for the student.

Why didn’t Richard Organisciak turn back his contractual increase to the common district fund. The man is very well compensated. Why didn’t the district freeze all exempt increases perhaps even lower the salary of exempts or come up with a buy-out plan for long service staff and hire less expensive people in jobs where it would be absolutely necessary to have an incumbent? Why does FUSE get a free ride and not agree to “give-backs’? Do you know how much the average teacher makes, how many hours h/she puts in to make pay and benefits, and all of the explicit ways in a contract itself that additional money can be made such as “step increases”. Do you know how generous the tuition refund plan is and how easy it is for someone to get advanced degrees or credits which lead to more money? Mostly, do you know of the naked power held by Marty Daly the FUSE union head and his past curious practice of actually speaking for the district at school tax presentations in the past when it is likely an unfair labor practice that he is there and doing this in the first place? The same Mr. Daly apparently is not a New Rochelle resident and yet holders a high potential in the PTA hierarchy in the city– and this organization, filled with lovely people, is nevertheless, a shill for the district and union.

So, what have I learned from the 2009-2010 School Tax Report? I learned that New Rochelle ranks first in overall student enrollment, first in budget spending, first in school property tax levies (all of this is comparative and relative) and 37th (out of 38) in spending per pupil). The numbers are forecasts and are what they are.

Here is what I would concentrate on in the school tax hearings.

1. depending on the percentage sought, how does this amount relate to the annual actual and upcoming projected inflation rate in the economy?
2. How do your actual figures for Student Enrollment, Budgeted Spending, Projected School Property Tax Levies, Budgeting Spending Per Pupil, and Tax Levy Per Pupil compare to those you gave to New York State as required by law in May 2009?
3. What was the final amount given to you by the City Assessor for 2009?
4. Are you proposing any exempt or non union “givebacks, reductions or freezes on salary increases, bonuses or hiring in the coming year?
5. Given union negotiations scheduled for next year, are you planning to fight for the taxpayer on certain areas that are more expensive than the district can sustain?
6. Will you make it a point to exclude Mr Daly from any budget or tax presentation given to the taxpayer and will you check into his role with the PTA ?
7. What is your role vis a vis the City Assessor?
8. Will you make copies of the upcoming labor contract available to the taxpayer?
9. What are you doing to work together with other districts to challenge unfunded state mandates and to look for opportunities to share services?
10. What will you do to address the issue that the current way in which people are elected to the school board is not connected to city management or, is representative of equal support for all parts of the city?

There are many other areas of inquiry, but I hope this is useful.

READ ALSO: New York State Taylor Law – What You Need to Know for the Upcoming School Budget Forums

[Editor’s Note: The first school budget will take place this Thursday night at 7 PM at the Library at New Rochelle High School. Union negotiation for the next FUSE contract will begin this coming fall.]