The region’s superintendents weigh in on Cuomo proposals

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.”

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