03/29/13 3:50pm
03/29/2013 3:50 PM

Aside from school aid bumps, other items in the New York State budget adopted Thursday include a “middle class” tax rebate for families with kids, a creation of a bar-type exam for prospective teachers and financial incentives for top-performing teaching.

The spending plan will also increase the state minimum wage, and provide more highway improvement funds for local towns.

The budget deal extends from last year a higher tax on top earners, which reportedly raises about $1.9 million annually.

The 2013-14 budget is the third consecutive state budget that’s been adopted before the April 1 deadline by which it’s supposed to be adopted. That hasn’t always been the case, as the state routinely missed the budget deadline for many years prior to that.

This is the first time since 1984 the state made the deadline three years in a row.

Overall, the $135 billion budget increases total state spending by under one percent, according to state documents.

“This budget agreement puts New York on track to have the third consecutive on-time, balanced, budget that holds increases in spending under 2 percent,” Governor Andrew Cuomo said in a press release.

The adopted budget “includes direct tax relief for middle class families in the form of a $350 Family Tax Relief credit,” according to officials.

Over the next three years, each New York family with at least one dependent child and a household income between $40,000 and $300,000, will receive a “Family Tax Relief” credit in the amount of $350.  The statewide amount of these payments will be $1.23 billion over three years, beginning in 2014.

The budget extends the “middle class” personal income tax rate reductions enacted in 2011, which were due to expire in 2014. Those reductions will provide 4.4 million taxpayers with $707 million in tax relief per year, according to state officials

The new budget also calls for creation of “Bar Exam for Teachers,” officials said.

“To ensure the best and brightest are teaching our children, the State Education Department will increase the standards for teacher certification to require passage of a “bar exam,” in addition to longer, more intensive and high-quality student-teaching experience in a school setting,” Mr. Cuomo said.

The state also plans to reward “high performing teachers” under the new budget.

“To improve results and incentive high-performance, the budget implements a program that will offer $15,000 in annual stipends for four years to the most effective teachers beginning with math and science teachers,” the governor said.

A total of $11 million in incentives will be given statewide. Specifics were not available on how teacher performance will be judged.

Local municipalities on the North Fork will see an increase in Consolidated Highway Improvement Program (CHIPS) funding under the new budget, which increased that fund by $75 million statewide.

“This nearly $7 million in funding for towns and villages in the First Senatorial District will allow us to put New York back to work by repairing roads and bridges,” said state Senator Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson).

This is the first time since 2008 that CHIPS funding has increased.

Locally, Riverhead Town will receive $372,218 in CHIPS funding for 2013-14, an increase of 26 percent over the previous state budget allocation.

Likewise, Southold Town will get $421,071, a 28 percent increase, Southampton Town will get $842,159, a 28 percent increase, and Shelter Island Town will get $123,321, also a 28 percent increase.

Greenport Village is getting $52,902, a 24 percent increase, and the tiny Village of Dering Harbor on Shelter Island, is getting $59,891, a 27 percent increase.

The new budget also raises the minimum wage in New York State from $7.25 per hour to $9 per hour, but over three years.

“Recognizing that New York’s minimum wage is unlivable and that 19 other states have higher minimum wages than New York, the budget raises the minimum wage from $7.25 per hour to $9.00 per hour over three years, beginning with $8.00 by the end of 2013, $8.75 by the end of 2014, and $9.00 by the end of 2015,” the governor said.

The budget also provides hiring tax credits to businesses that hire returning veterans and young people.

The credit will equal 10 percent of wages paid for hiring veterans, and 15 percent of wages if the veteran is disabled, officials said.

The budget includes a refundable tax credit for businesses that hire people under the age of 20, which officials say will save those businesses a total of $112 million over three years, statewide.

tgannon@timesreview.com

03/21/13 8:00am
03/21/2013 8:00 AM
Governor Andrew Cuomo on Long Island

PAUL SQUIRE FILE PHOTO | Governor Andrew Cuomo must decide when a special election for the recently vacated 2nd Assembly District seat will be held.

More than a week has passed since Dan Losquadro was sworn in as Brookhaven Town highway superintendent and still no date has been set for a special election to replace him in the New York State Assembly.

That responsibility falls squarely on New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who could opt to set the special election date to coincide with local elections in November.

Area Democrats have said the main reason to wait until November would be to save taxpayer dollars. But is that the only reason?

The Dems have a list of potential candidates that’s shorter than a stack of pancakes. With a decent crop of interested parties on the GOP side — including two elected Southold officials — we suspect the governor may be dragging his feet for political reasons.

A November election could put GOP favorite Chris Talbot — who’s up for re-election to the Southold Town Board this year — on the sidelines in the Assembly race, lest he risk giving up his town seat. It would also give the Democratic nominee, who would almost certainly be someone not currently in office, the standard six months to campaign for the seat and raise his or her profile.

If the election were set today and scheduled for May 21, the date of the statewide school budget votes, candidates would still have almost two months to campaign. Hosting the election on that date would assure a higher voter turnout and than on any other non-Election Day — and would minimize election costs.

If the governor’s true concern were saving money, he’d already have set an election date. After all, the former assemblyman’s staff is still getting paid, as it works to field calls from constituents who have no elected representative. The staff now reports to the office of Speaker of the Assembly Sheldon Silver, a New York City Democrat who, we’re quite certain, has very little use for an office full of East End Republicans.

State records list the expenses for Mr. Losquadro’s office at $300,000 last year. Even if you subtract the assemblyman’s salary from the budget, it still costs more than $18,000 per month to keep the district offices staffed and open for business. If the Assembly post is not filled until November, taxpayers will have shelled out close to $150,000 to maintain an office with no elected leader.

Gov. Cuomo needs to set a special election date quickly.

He needs to set it for May 21.

01/07/13 12:27pm
01/07/2013 12:27 PM

NYS EXECUTIVE CHAMBER COURTESY PHOTO | Governor Andrew Cuomo in Albany Wednesday during his first cabinet meeting of the new year where the New NY Education Commission released its preliminary action plan.

Consolidate small school districts, develop a “bar-like” teacher exam and extend the school day and year are some of the recommendations a commission convened by Governor Andrew Cuomo has made in a report released last week.

Mr. Cuomo has said there’s a need for education reform because New York graduation rates lag behind most states, even though it spends more per pupil than any other state. Although New York spends over $18,600 on average per student, about 74 percent of students graduate from high school and nearly 36 percent are college ready, according to the 92-page report titled, “The Preliminary Education Action Plan.”

While the commission recommends that small school districts consider consolidation in order to increase savings and services, it recognizes the pitfalls of such a move.

“More than half of New York’s nearly 700 school districts educate fewer than 2,000 students, and yet many have their own administration and back office functions, often leading to unnecessary and expensive duplication of services,” the report states. “However, there are obstacles that stand in the way of school district consolidation, including potentially different tax rates between communities and the desire to maintain a sense of identity in small communities.”

Prospective teachers looking to enroll in preparation programs will need at least a 3.0 GPA and would have to pass a “bar-like” exam before entering into the education profession under the state’s preliminary plan. The new standards aim to ensure educators are ready to teach the Common Core Standards, which is a program that integrates learning in different subject areas while focusing on the literacy and mathematics skills needed for problem solving throughout educational settings.

As for the school day and year, the commission found New York should no longer operate its schools on agrarian and factory traditions.

“We must fundamentally rethink whether students need six months off from school every year,” the report states. “New York can, and must, do better to ensure that we are supporting students by providing quality, extended learning time in order to improve student achievement.”

The report also stresses the importance of providing pre-kindergarten programs and creating community hubs in school facilities by integrating local health and social services.

In addition, the commission recommends the state create more competitive grants for technology investments. The monies would be award to school districts that propose innovative ways to use technology, according to the report.

In April, the governor established the “New NY Education Reform Commission,” comprised of education, community and business leaders, tasked with developing an education plan from pre-kindergarten through college and career. Since then, officials said the commission has held public hearings throughout the state and has received thousands of written comments from students, parents, educators and residents.

The 25-member commission includes state Senator John Flanagan (R-East Northport), senate education committee chairman; John King, state education department commissioner; and Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. The commission is chaired by Richard Parsons, former chief executive of Time Warner Corp.

Officials said the commission plans to further develop its recommendations and is expected to submit a final version of the reform plan this fall.

Scroll down to view the complete report. Read more in the Jan. 10 issue of The Suffolk Times in both our print and electronic editions.

jennifer@timesreview.com

NYS Education Action Plan, 2013

03/10/11 12:28pm
03/10/2011 12:28 PM

Deep into planning their budgets for the 2011-12 school year, area administrators and school board members are fixated on Albany.

That’s because the Legislature may approve sharp cuts in state aid and possibly even a 2 percent cap on tax hikes, which means school districts will have to keep spending flat unless they have large cash reserves from past years.

In separate interviews, superintendents from Riverhead, Southold and Brookhaven towns acknowledged that the state must close a deficit and local taxpayers are hurting. But some districts are better positioned to absorb the shocks this year than others.

In addition to cuts in state aid and a 2 percent tax cap, Governor Andrew Cuomo has proposed four steps the Legislature can take to help school districts control spending:

• stop new underfunded state mandates;
• cut superintendent salaries in line with the number of students in a district;
• change the system for teacher evaluations and end the “last in, first out” policy for layoffs; and
• call on districts to use reserve funds to bridge gaps between what they need to spend and what they can bring in from tax revenues.

Riverhead Superintendent Nancy Carney called this year’s budget process a time of challenge for educational leaders to “make good decisions based on the situation at hand. I will continue to do my job, just as the governor is doing his,” she said. Her main focus is to prepare a “fiscally responsible budget that addresses academic needs” while remaining committed to the district and the community, she said.

“Mandate relief is necessary during these difficult economic times to provide communities with more flexibility,” Ms. Carney said. “It is yet to be seen if there will be substantive mandate relief passed by the Legislature.”

Similarly, Dr. Harriet Copel, Shoreham-Wading River superintendent, said existing mandates are making it “difficult for us to increase our budgets and make the changes we need to reduce our taxes.”

“It’s kind of a Catch-22,” said Greenport Superintendent Michael Comanda. He’s required by the federal government to offer services to students who aren’t performing at specific levels and state relief can’t change that, he said.

Even if the state can cut back on some of those services, it’s questionable how much money a district might save, said Mattituck-Cutchogue Superintendent James McKenna. If he’s allowed to offer fewer speech therapy classes a week, for example, it won’t save him the salary of a speech therapist, he said.

Mandates related to safety issues can’t be cut, so it becomes a question of “what are you going to eliminate,” Mr. McKenna said. “I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around what it really means to us. It’s sexy; it’s savvy to talk about,” he said.

The governor is moving in the right direction with mandate relief, said Southold Superintendent David Gamberg. But so far, he added, the news from Albany is “vague.” He’s optimistic that his district can survive the 2011-12 school term without sharp cuts in staff and programs. But the problem is systemic and needs careful evaluation, Mr. Gamberg said. Spending cuts have to be done “thoughtfully,” he said.

As for applying reserve funds to the 2011-12 budgets, that’s fine for districts that are flush, said Mr. Comanda of Greenport. But what about districts like his?

When he took the helm in the summer of 2009, well into the recession, he inherited practically empty reserves. Last year, he was able to save two teachers from layoffs only because the state offered a retirement incentive that enticed other teachers with long tenures to leave. The picture isn’t any less bleak as Mr. Comanda tackles budgeting for 2011-12, he said.

He said he wanted to ask the governor, “What are you prepared to do for districts that don’t have enough reserve funds?”

For districts that have to face teacher cuts, all superintendents agree that they shouldn’t be based on “last in, first out” policies or how students perform on standardized tests.

Of the suggestion that superintendents take sharp salary cuts based on the number of students in the district, Mr. McKenna said it was “part of a bigger puzzle. It’s glitzy to talk about,” he said, but there needs to be a bigger structural change in all educational salaries.

“Let somebody walk a day in my shoes” before they suggest cutting his $170,000 salary to $145,000 or $155,000, Mr. McKenna said. In a small district, administrators have a lot on their plates with little support, he said.

Mr. Comanda said he took a salary freeze last year and the district cut one administrative position, leaving him and two school principals to absorb more responsibilities. His current salary is $175,000. Under the governor’s plan, he would lose $30,000. Other superintendents would face similar salary cuts.
“We are not top-heavy,” said Mr. Gamberg. He has worked in districts with 8,000 students; his Southold district has about 900.

Dr. Copel speculated that cutting superintendents’ salaries wouldn’t have much impact on overall budgets. She agreed that the discussion needs to be in the context of all educational salaries.

“I think there are some fundamental instructional issues that need to be addressed in the funding and structure of public education in the state of New York, as well as some of the laws and some of the mandates that have not been addressed that really need to be changed,” Dr. Copel said. “It’s a much bigger problem than just what superintendents make.”

jlane@timesreview.com