New York State School Boards Association

by Timothy G. Kremer

On Board Online • March 26, 2012

By Timothy Kremer
NYSSBA Executive Director

Another NYSSBA “murmur moment” occurred this month. Remember when State Education Commissioner John King, speaking at NYSSBA’s 2011 Annual Convention in Buffalo, first advocated for school district consolidations in places like Long Island? The press referred to this as a “murmur moment” as the crowd audibly gasped its surprise.

Well, it happened again – only louder – during State Budget Director Robert Megna’s budget presentation at our 2012 State Issues Conference earlier this month. When pressed about the local impact of the property tax cap, competitive performance grant funding, and collectively-bargained teacher and principal evaluation procedures, Megna urged school board members to “negotiate harder.” They murmured, then they engaged the budget director in what some who were there might call a passionate exchange.

Give Mr. Megna credit for expertly briefing the audience about the state’s financial picture, noting planned school aid increases during the next two fiscal years. A numbers guy, he got into policy quicksand when he seemed to dismiss the role the Triborough Amendment plays in collective bargaining, especially when the economy is weak. Triborough, as you know, continues the provisions of an expired labor contract, including salary steps. Thus, obtaining concessions from employee unions is a very tall order.

But wait. Didn’t Gov. Cuomo do it at the state level? That was Mr. Megna’s argument. He acknowledged similarities between the state and school districts in terms of budget gaps in the millions of dollars, dwindling reserve funds, rapidly increasing benefit costs, capped and uncertain revenue increases, job eliminations, layoffs, program cuts, and Triborough-mandated step increases. Yet, he said, “We have negotiated very tough deals with our public employee unions.”

Nevertheless, the state budget director seemed oddly perplexed when Huntington school board member Jennifer Hebert responded, “Our budget has to be passed by a community…we’re in a different situation than you are.” Other audience members launched a barrage of comments about the political realities of governing a school district in danger of “educational insolvency.” Points they made:

  • “Because of Triborough, 70 to 80 percent of our budget is untouchable.”
  • “Most communities won’t pass more than the 2 percent tax cap.”
  • “We are being forced to cut teachers and programs, and deliver a lackluster education to kids.”
  • “We cannot negotiate state-mandated transportation programs, special education assignments and pension contributions.”
  • “Did the state bargain employee performance evaluation procedures?”

Because politics is about relationships, I was pleased that Mr. Megna took the verbal challenges in stride. If board members sounded passionate, even strident, it’s because they clearly understand the distinctive nature of school district collective bargaining in 2012.

Begin with the fact that school communities statewide must be convinced to support a “maximum allowable tax levy increase.” School boards’ public relations capabilities will be taxed if nothing else. Saving programs and staff by winning support of a “supermajority” is beginning to take on features of a rigged game of chance. Conservatively staying under the cap is the safest path on which most budgets should be approved.

So let’s assume budget passage on May 15. Now the real fun begins.

Before July 1, every school board must negotiate and submit to the State Education Department for approval an Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR) with unions that might strongly resent the very foundation of the program. If no such agreement is reached by next January, your district’s state aid increase is in jeopardy – well into the second half of the 2012-13 school year. The threat of a loss of state funds will resonate most with school boards, superintendents and business officials who have to make ends meet.

Add public employee unions’ stated bitterness over enactment of a new Tier VI pension plan for new employees, the necessary restructuring of traditional school schedules, building closings and summer program eliminations. Oh, and take note that school districts cannot declare bankruptcy, shut down temporarily, or relocate operations. This is not what one would describe as “negotiating from a position of strength.”

Since the State Issues Conference, the state Senate and Assembly issued their one-house state budget resolutions, which are helpful to school districts, but differ slightly from the Executive Budget. The outcome of three-way budget negotiations could be known by the time you read this. An on-time budget, if not an early budget, is likely. Thank you, Mr. Megna. That is the best news we have heard in a long time.

If only school district negotiations could be so simple.

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