The recent revelation that Joe Ogeka, an assistant superintendent of the Riverhead Central School District has been identified as the highest salaried public school official in the state for 2013-14 outside New York City caused many in our community to ask: How could this happen? How could this happen in a district with 51 percent free and reduced lunch enrollees, where the annual median family incomes trails the rest of Suffolk by $20,000 and where state aid for the annual operating budget is less than 25 percent?
Where did Riverhead find $376,000-plus to fund a position with no apparent job duties and no performance expectations?
Lastly, where was the Board of Education, elected to protect our community’s interests?
School districts are the most common kind of special taxing district in New York State. They’re charged with providing, arranging or contracting for public education services, including special education and transportation. There are about 630 school districts in the state, excluding the big five municipalities. Long Island has 127 districts plus one special act school district, Little Flower in Wading River. The 128 districts represent some 20 percent of all NYS districts — in just two counties.
In almost two decades, the cost of public education in New York State has grown by $37 billion, an increase of more than 250 percent. Yet enrollment has flat-lined or decreased, especially in Riverhead. How could this happen?
The cost of living and unfunded mandates contribute to increased expenses, even though the number of students has remained about the same. Newsday reports that Riverhead spent $20,693 per student for the 4,800 students enrolled in the 2011-12 year. Yet in less than 10 years, the annual operating budget has risen from $89 million to $121 million, an increase of $32 million, or 36.5 percent, with state aid increasing only from 17 to 24 percent in the same period.
There are other factors that contribute to the bloated budgets: huge salaries and benefits for administrators, achieved through a process that receives little oversight outside the locally elected school boards.
Years ago, Gov. Mario Cuomo, enraged by the huge retirement buyout for a superintendent at BOCES, issued an executive order to cap salaries for BOCES superintendents. Sadly, his efforts at reform did not extend to local public school administrators. The Long Island chapter of the New York State School Boards Association has for many years retained a lobbyist to push for increases in state aid to school districts as the solution to excessive local property tax assessments. Cries for “our fair share” are raised each year, and are just so much hot air and posturing — no real reform measures are ever proposed.
So, here is a reform proposal.
Make all public school employees — no exceptions -— state employees, with final appointments made through the state education department. Use the model for state employment already in existence and eliminate local costs — and with that, wild discrepancies — for salaries and benefits.
Our state constitution declares that education for the public is to be paid (but not how) by the state; this modest proposal may well help achieve realization of that mandate. Local district reserve funds for health insurance, workers compensation, retirement, longevity payments and unused leave and sick days and others would disappear. Taxpayers would not pay property taxes to create these massive mandated reserve accounts as the need would have dissipated.
Most significantly, as state employees, salary and benefits packages would be uniform across the state — comparisons to other school districts during contract negotiations would disappear, the rush to throw money onto contracts in order to retain “certain” staff would dissipate. Contract negotiations would take place between the governor’s office of employee relations and the unions representing school workers — CSEA, NYSUT and the various administrators’ associations.
Is this so unrealistic? Not really. Every agency in the state employs staff across the state. All enjoy the same salary and benefits package, with pay differentials of modest amounts allowed for geographic cost differences. Local school districts could retain the right to interview and hire, just like all other state agency administrative units.
The state education department currently controls the final say in hiring, issuing certifications to qualified staff, so why not have this agency as the primary organizational unit? It already has the responsibility for so many aspects of public education — policy, curriculum, construction, certifications, licensing, background checks —why not give it the workforce development and management function as well?
This proposal would shift the costs of staff and benefits back to the state, which would be much more prudent in its administration of such. Excesses such as the recent egregious salary arrangement for Joe Ogeka would not be possible. The state could do away with artificial financial inducements such as STAR and Enhanced STAR; the battles and compromises to continue these programs would vanish as such smoke-and-mirror tactics to assuage the outrage over local property tax rates would no longer be necessary.
Will the state buy into this proposal? We will never know if we do not put it forward. Will it immediately remove the 60 cents of every dollar of our property taxes that go to staff salary and benefits? Perhaps not; the state is sure to try to negotiate a share of taxes to cover its new fiscal responsibility.
The challenge before us is to create a new paradigm.
We have nothing to lose by rethinking how we organize and staff public education. We can only gain a better insight into how best to use our monies.
Angela DeVito is a Jamesport resident and longtime workplace safety advocate who previously served as president of the Riverhead school board.