A few wins worth noting in Albany

by Susan Bergtraum

On Board Online • July 3, 2017

Susan Bergtraum
NYSSBA President

If you are a baseball fan, you might be familiar with the term "small ball." It refers to advancing base runners into scoring position incrementally, one base at a time, through single base hits rather than home runs and extra base hits. It may not be flashy, but some teams have racked up winning records with small ball.

The 2017 legislative session may go down as the political equivalent of small ball. No towering home runs, but some solid base hits.

First, though, legislators struck out on extension of mayoral control over the New York City school system. The issue got caught up in political squabbling over raising the charter school cap and extending the authority of counties to collect sales taxes. Though mayoral control was set to expire on June 30, the Legislature finished up on June 21 without acting on it. Mayoral control should have been a base on balls, but instead the issue got caught in a pickle somewhere between first and second base. As On Board went to press, Gov. Andrew Cuomo had called lawmakers back to resolve this issue.

Another whiff: Although there was a significant increase in foundation aid (the largest increase since 2008-09), lawmakers took no action on one of NYSSBA's biggest priorities: committing to a restart of the phase-in of the foundation aid formula, which provides unrestricted state aid to school districts. The state remains $3.7 billion behind full phase in of the formula, leaving many districts underfunded. The Assembly also failed to act on raising the salary cap for BOCES district superintendents.

But legislators deserve recognition for making other changes closer to base hits than home runs.

For example, legislation passed both the Senate and Assembly allowing school districts to count BOCES capital costs as part of the district's tax cap capital exclusion. Permissive language to make this change was enacted in 2015, but it was never implemented. BOCES capital projects around the state have been stalled as school districts struggle with how to budget for them within the constraints of the tax cap. This significantly impairs the ability of districts and BOCES to work together to invest in modernizing shared learning facilities. Should the governor sign this measure into law, it will likely be easier for school districts to contribute to BOCES construction projects, thereby benefiting the students who participate in BOCES programs and services and enabling BOCES to continue to fulfill their mission. Let's call this one a double.

Lawmakers in both houses also passed legislation permitting districts to include in the property tax cap "tax base growth factor" additions to their tax base which generate payments in lieu of taxes (PILOTs). This reform would have the effect of treating tax base growth additions which generate PILOTs the same as those which generate property taxes. Especially because some PILOT-producing developments create new service demands, schools and municipalities should be permitted to realize revenue to meet those demands. This one qualifies as a bunt single.

The inclusion of $700 million in additional foundation aid in the state budget fell short of NYSSBA's call for an extra $1.4 billion. However, the total aid increase represented a 4.4 percent increase over 2016-17 levels, drove much needed aid to high-needs school districts, provided a minimum level of additional foundation aid for all districts and targeted funding for districts with enrollment growth and increased numbers of English language learners. This represents a solid hit into the gap.

The enacted budget included language that will begin the process of merging the state's many prekindergarten programs and funding streams into one program: universal prekindergarten. NYSSBA believes districts need a stable and reliable funding stream for pre-K. As existing grant streams run out, that funding should be consolidated into a separate, predictable stream like foundation aid. The merging of programs this year will help players advance around the bases.

We are still hoping for legislators to wield big sticks to knock some of the major issues out of the park if and when they return to Albany. But for now, we will have to settle for base hits.

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