School districts across New York were thrown for a loop last week when Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration declined to provide school runs, the projected aid increases district officials use to help shape their budget proposals. Administration officials confirmed the school runs were being withheld because the governor’s education reform agenda hasn’t been met favorably by the state legislature, a move Kingston City School District Superintendent Paul Padalino called “a little childish.”
Traditionally, the Budget Division releases school runs following its budget presentation, but this year the governor’s administration indicated that his proposed $1.1 billion aid increase is linked to the success of his education reform proposals. Included among the proposed reforms is a teacher evaluation system based half on student test scores, an increase in the length of time before a teacher is eligible for tenure and allowing the state to take over failing schools and districts. An increase in the allowed number of charter schools and tax credits for those who donate or set up scholarship funds for private and religious schools are also on the table.
School districts like Kingston use the school runs as they craft their spending proposals for the following year, a process Padalino said begins almost immediately after the previous year’s budget is decided. The district held its first public budget session in late November of last year, but a budget forum scheduled for this Thursday, Jan. 29 at the district’s central office on Crown Street was cancelled a day before it was to occur. The district budget vote won’t take place until Tuesday, May 19, more than a month and a half after the state budget’s deadline of April 1.
On Wednesday, Jan. 21, Bob Megna, the governor’s outgoing budget director, reportedly said the aid increase was linked to the reforms, and that school runs wouldn’t come until those reforms were approved by the legislature. Megna added that the state has hit its April 1 deadline for the past four years, which would give school districts plenty of time to factor in state aid into their budget proposals.
Padalino, who said he was awaiting the school runs along with the district’s Deputy Superintendent for Human Resources and Business Allen Olsen last week, when he discovered they weren’t forthcoming.
“I read it on Twitter,” Padalino said. “Quite frankly, I think it’s a little childish. We’re talking about reforming education, and no matter how you want to go about it, to take away the tools that we use to make educated estimates on what we need to do to operate our school district, and what we need to inform our taxpayers about what they will be asked to contribute, it doesn’t seem like a very productive way to go about working towards bettering education.”
Still, Padalino added, school officials have a budget proposal to prepare whether they have school runs or not.
“I’m not going to make a big deal of it,” he said. “We are going to sit down, myself and my deputy superintendent for business, and we are going to do our best to estimate where we think we will be, like we always do. We’re going to do what school districts always do, no matter what is put in front of us. No matter what, 6,895 students are coming to the Kingston School District next week. No matter what the obstacles are, we need to figure out a way to get over them. And that’s what we’ll do as far as this is concerned also.”
The district’s operating budget for the 2014-15 school year came in at roughly $150.17 million, $48.72 million of which was covered by state aid; the state aid represented a $1.64 million, or 3.48 percent, increase over the previous year. But rather than assume a similar increase, Padalino said the district is preparing the budget proposal as if there will be no increase at all.
“We have a general idea of where we will be with our expenses,” Padalino said. “Revenues are always the issue. We have a pretty good idea right now what our tax levy limit might be. The thing now is state aid. Let’s look at state aid as if we’ll get no more than we got last year. Let’s work from there and call that our budget gap. And whatever that budget gap is, we’ll work on the budget to see what we need to do to get there. If we get more, if there’s an increase or other revenues come in, we’re able to put things back that maybe we had to pull out. That’s the only way we can work through it, but that’s pretty much how it always works.”
A better way
Padalino said that he supported some of Cuomo’s proposed reforms, though he said he didn’t believe this was the best way to go about achieving them.
“There are some parts of what he’s talking about that are absolutely dead on, but there are different ways of doing it,” Padalino said. “Let’s get a statewide professional review rubric, a statewide system that’s a real look at what testing should be counted on for teachers, and a reasonable amount of testing for our students. Let’s talk about that. Let’s have a productive conversation instead of this going to the extremes and creating hurdles that no one can jump over. If the governor’s goal is to improve education, these extremes aren’t going to be the way to do it.”
In a prepared statement last week, Timothy Kremer, executive director of the New York State School Boards Association, also questioned the governor’s methods.
“We admire the governor’s willingness to take on such bold initiatives as reforming the cumbersome teacher disciplinary process, repairing the state’s broken teacher and principal evaluation system, and rewarding exemplary teachers,” said Kremer’s statement. “But state aid to school districts should not be held hostage to education reforms. Without knowing how much state funding they will receive, school boards will not be able to properly develop their budgets and estimate their tax levies.”
Padalino said withholding school runs and the threat of denying aid increases isn’t just difficult for school officials preparing their operating budgets; it’s also difficult for communities as well.
“Our community relies on knowing these things, our students need certain things in the classrooms, and we’re going to do our best to estimate, to get our community involved in the budget process, and move forward,” Padalino said. But quite honestly, I’m not playing these games. We’ve got real responsibilities here that are beyond political trickery and childish games of, ‘I’m taking my toys and going home if you don’t give me what I want.’ We’ve got kids’ lives in our hands. This makes it much more difficult, and I really think that people in the community will be unhappy with the governor deciding to do that because they like to know. People who aren’t parents, community members who own property, they want to know what we’re estimating they’ll have to pay. And I’m going to have to say to them, ‘Call Albany.’”