by Art Cusano
PEEKSKILL, N.Y. – The state tax cap and mandates, both unfunded and partially unfunded, were the hot topics of conversation at an education forum at Peekskill High School Tuesday evening hosted by District 40 State Sen. Greg Ball (R, C – Patterson).
The forum was an opportunity for Ball and his special guest State Sen. John Flanagan, the Senate education chairperson, to hear from school superintendents, principals, faculty and school board members in the 40th District.
Flanagan, a Republican who represents District 2 upstate, told attendees that while a lot of progress had been made this past year in Albany, Gov. Andrew Cuomo had made things more difficult than need be by putting many costs back onto school districts.
“Before we did anything to put more money back into operating aid, we had to buy back $190 million dollars at the negotiating table,” Flanagan said. “Before we could do anything in terms of real restoration we ended up having to fix those problems.”
Flanagan said he and his colleagues knew mandate relief was a huge issue facing districts and had begun to take steps to address that through changes to the tax code to free up $1.5 billion for education last year.
“For the first time in as long as I can remember we set up a schedule where the growth in education and health care will be tied to personal income tax growth in the State of New York,” Flanagan said.
Many of those educators who attended the meeting had similar concerns, dealing with what one school official called “the two-headed dragon” of the newly enacted 2 percent tax cap and the tax gap elimination adjustments that cut education aid to all districts equally.
“That tax cap is forcing the discussion on mandate relief in ways it never has been before,” Ball said.
Peekskill schools Superintendent James Willis told the senators that urban, less affluent school districts such as his own had been more severely impacted by funding cuts than wealthier schools. Willis said 15 to 20 percent of his budget goes to unfunded mandates and said last year’s funding cuts hurt some schools more than others.
“The restoration of aid wasn’t based on wealth. The higher wealth districts don’t need as much state aid as the low wealth districts do,” Willis said.
Peekskill Board of Education Trustee Marcella Bobe asked the senators why education was a state issue when in most other industrialized counties, whose students regularly outperform American students, it is federally regulated.
“The federal government passes it on to the state and the state passes it on to the school districts and then everybody is looking at each other and nobody is willing to pick up the slack,” Bobe said.
Ball said he agreed that education should be a federal priority just below national security and that there should be standards set across the board for all states, but said that state senators like him could only do so much at the state level.
“If every state had its own department of defense and its own Army, Navy and Coast Guard and then we decided to work together when we went to war we’d get our butts kicked, and that’s what’s happening in education,” Ball said. (ARTICLE)