Friday, March 30, 2012

What is the solution at Potsdam Central?

Rachel Wallace, a well-regarded PTSA officer posted the following comment in response to a blog posting by Sandra Morris about spending priorities in the school district. 

What is the solution? I don't know enough about how contracts are negotiated to understand what the options are. Mr. Brady had mentioned something to the effect that he "had nothing to negotiate with", and I have had teachers tell me that they had offered to pay more for insurance AND not take a raise to save their colleagues' jobs, but the union wouldn't allow it. If the Superintendent's hands are tied (?) and the union won't budge, what are we left with other than increasing costs, year after year? How can we fix this locally?

I would like to take the opportunity to address Ms. Wallace's questions. First of all, there is the issue of how contracts are negotiated. 
  • Superintendents are given the legal authority to negotiate and sign collective bargaining agreements with school district unions. Boards of Education are given the responsibility to ratify the contracts. If the union members also vote to ratify, then the deal is firm. Board ratification is legal approval to release the money to cover the costs incurred in the collective bargaining agreement. In the PCSD, the two BOE members on the Personnel/Negotiations Committee (and sometimes the BOE president) are  part of management's negotiations' team along with the Superintendent, the Business Manager, and a labor relations specialist (from BOCES). Attorneys for the school district occasionally show up but generally they answer questions via e-mail or telephone conference calls. 
  • It is worth noting that legal experts have repeatedly advised BOE members to use attorneys to negotiate these contracts. Why? Well, first of all good attorneys are trained about the Taylor Law (formally known as the Public Employees Fair Employment Act). "It refers to Article 14 of the NYS Civil Service Law that outlines the rights and limitations of unions for public employees in NYS." Lawyers are also trained in the use of precise language which helps districts avoid unintended consequences. Such unintended consequences can result in major problems. For instance, because the word "tenured" (in front of the word "teachers") was omitted from a PCSD contract with the teachers' union, the District had to give due process to untenured teachers. In other words, as soon as the District hired a teacher, the teacher had all the same protections as a tenured employee. The consequences for this mistake were significant for the BOE and Superintendent as it negatively impacted grievances and negotiations. Hiring someone with knowledge of labor law and with excellent writing skills is a must if BOE members are to protect the public's interest. 
The next issue - teachers who have offered to pay more for insurance and not take a raise to save their colleagues' jobs but the union won't allow it.
  • I know, too, of teachers who have expressed this sentiment. They are to be commended. However, the union is not a separate entity from its members. If union leaders do not reflect the wishes of their membership, then the members should elect colleagues who do reflect their values and priorities. 
The final point- Mr. Brady  stated that he "had nothing to negotiate with."
  • If this were true he and the BOE would not have been able to settle the Teachers' Contract on October 11, 2011. Teachers were given a 3.25% raise for this year, 3% for next year, and 3% for 2013-2014. In addition,  "The District agrees to continue paying 100% of the premium for teachers who retired on or before July 1, 2013 and their dependents, plus the Medicare payment. This insurance benefit extends beyond the term of the contract...". (The Medicare payments also go to spouses of retired employees.)  These contract provisions do not speak of money being tight. To agree to pay 100% of health insurance, when Mr. Brady has repeatedly expounded on the skyrocketing costs of health insurance premiums, is rather amazing.  As I have said before, contracts such as this lead directly to teachers and support staff being laid off, programs being cut, and class sizes increasing. What is the solution at the PCSD? It lies in deciding just where to spend the $25 million dollar budget.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

PCSD & Contract Negotiations

    The two most significant things that can be done by boards of education are hiring excellent teachers (or teachers with great promise) and negotiating fair and wise collective bargaining agreements. The former directly benefits students. A school's mission, after all, is to educate students. The latter sets the financial stage. Contracts incautiously settled by superintendents and poorly vetted by boards of education before ratification will result in teacher layoffs and damage to the educational system within a district.
    This is what has happened in the PCSD. Last October, the Superintendent signed a collective bargaining agreement and the BOE ratified it. What is rather stunning is what the BOE and the Superintendent did not do. They did not have the District's legal firm examine the proposed contract and offer advice. This lack of due diligence is especially confounding because of serious problems that occurred a few years ago in our district. Back then, the BOE and Superintendent Brady learned that one word had been left out of a collective negotiations agreement. Due to the omission of this word, the PCSD lost a critically important legal right that is granted to all schools in NYS. When attorneys at the NYS School Boards Conference were told of our plight, they told us that we would probably never get this provision corrected and that if we did, it would cost us. Well, it was negotiated out and it did cost us. Given that this was a very recent event, why would experienced BOE members and the Superintendent ever consider placing the public's interest in jeopardy by failing to confer with attorneys? (Freshmen Board members should get a pass on this one as it takes years to become a well-informed BOE member and, therefore, they count on the knowledge of experienced Board members and superintendents to guide them.)
    For the most part, employees are not overpaid in the PCSD. The  problems are with the skyrocketing costs of health insurance (20% of the total budget or approximately $4.5 million dollars for 2012-13) and with pension costs (Teachers' Retirement System [TRS] will be over $1 million and Employee Retirement System[ERS] will be half a million next year).  Many people do not know that NYS Comptroller DiNapoli is in control of the TRS and the ERS. He decides how much money must be in the systems. The current economic crisis in NYS has caused the amount of money in the pension funds to plummet (stocks bottomed out, failed investments, etc.). When Mr. DiNapoli sees this, he  simply bills each school in order to get the funds up to what he deems to be an acceptable level. The bills to the school districts have risen precipitously.
    The central issue with the runaway costs of health insurance and pension contributions is that they are unsustainable. More and more money is going to fund these benefits and the result is that more and more teachers are being laid off. How many more teachers and support staff can be laid off before the quality of education in the district is severely impaired?
    The only way to avoid the freight train headed our way is to negotiate contracts that result in long-term savings that can then be used to keep teachers employed. And so, I am back to the point of the importance of negotiating contracts that are in the interest of all parties - employees, students, and the public. The fact that the most recent collective bargaining agreement was not examined by attorneys, shows that the BOE and the Superintendent not only haven't learned from expensive past mistakes but do not see that that freight train can be slowed down or stopped by thorough, intelligent contract negotiations. Doesn't the public deserve to have legal representation on its side of the table?


Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Close But Not Quite Enough Votes

It is a good thing that our ninth Board of Education member wasn't at the Board meeting tonight or the taxpayers of the school district might have been voting on a spending plan which exceeded the tax cap.  As it was reported to me, four Board members are in favor of a 2.9% increase in the tax levy.  The other four want to keep the levy increase at the cap, which is currently 2%.   I wonder what the missing Board member will do?

What I can't figure out is why they stopped at 2.9%.  That 0.9 percent is only going to amount to about $100,000, not nearly enough to satisfy all of those people who are going to have to vote "Yes" to the spending plan.  Any plan that exceeds the tax cap requires that 60% of the voters approve the increase. 

The Finance Committee meeting on April 3rd should be most interesting.  See you there!

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Potsdam's "Slush" Fund

Kudos to one of our freshman School Board members for going through the 2011-12 spending plan to find a potential way out of the difficult budget situation the district finds itself in.  I have been saying for several years that the spending plan's bottom line has been excessive and that there is a "slush" fund that is too large.  It is very difficult for Board of Education members to get a handle on this concept and even more difficult to get an answer from administrators about how much extra money is in any budget.  I believe that administration thinks having a large percentage of excess funds in a spending plan is good management.

What do I mean by a "slush" fund?  Every spending plan needs to have some extra funds set aside for unexpected expenses.  For example, if there is an expensive, unanticipated mechanical failure that might cost thousands of dollars, there needs to be money in the spending plan to cover that expense.  Another common situation is when a family moves to the district which has one or more children with special educational needs.  The district is legally required to provide services and will get reimbursed, but not until the following year's spending plan.  Therefore, they need to have up-front funds for the services. Finally, another common need for extra funds is when a district is in negotiations with its unions and one or more years have gone by without a settlement.  In anticipation of a settlement, there should be money "hidden" in the spending plan to settle up when the contracts are approved.  I say "hidden" because the administration doesn't know what the final settlement will be and wouldn't want to broadcast how much they are anticipating for that amount.

How much should the "slush" fund have in it?  It depends on the school district and circumstances. Are they a district which has old infrastructure and might have more mechanical failures?  Are they a district, like Potsdam, which has a good reputation for providing special educational services in district, rather than the child being bused to another district?  Do they have expiring labor contracts?  Probably a fair amount would be 2-3% of the spending plan.  For Potsdam's $25 million dollar budget, it would seem that $500,000 - $750,000 would be sufficient.

How much is in Potsdam's "slush" fund and how do I know?  I believe that this year (and last year), that amount is around $1.5 million dollars.  It could have been more last year because contract settlements were anticipated.  There are two places I look to find out how much excess money is in the spending plan.  The business manager provides the Board of Education's members with monthly budget reports which show revenues and expenses to date.  The expense documents show what has been expended and what is encumbered (that is, funds that are committed but the check hasn't been written yet).  What is left over is the "slush" fund.  Monthly budget reports were presented at the March 13th Board of Education meeting with  an unspent and unencumbered amount of $1,515,054.  There are just three months left in the fiscal year, so there can't be many more unanticipated expenses.  Anticipated expenses should be encumbered.

The second place I have learned to look is fund balance designated toward the tax levy.  For the past many years, this money has not been spent.  It is a way to move money out of the undesignated fund balance account (which has a limit)  and remove excess monies in reserve accounts (remember the EBALR account that was overfunded)  but not reduce the tax levy. For 2011-12, that amount is $1,548,500.  Amazingly close to the unspent funds in the budget, isn't it? 

What does it all mean?  Well, to me, it means that there is at least $500,000 in the spending plan that is not needed and could be used to fund positions which are being cut.  Remember that this money has been rolled over into the proposed 2012-13 spending plan but not encumbered for any particular expense. So, again, I say kudos to all of the Board members who are trying to "right size" the spending plan.  They are not winning points with the administration and may find themselves outside of the majority circle, but I certainly appreciate their efforts.  Those efforts are in the best interests of our students.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Exceeding the Tax Cap in Potsdam

Well, the administrators and Board of Education members at Potsdam are finally talking about it: putting up a spending plan that will exceed the tax cap. After weeks of providing different figures for the maximum tax levy allowed by the new tax cap, the latest figures could be as low as 1.35 percent.  That figure has been getting lower and lower as the weeks have gone on.  According to the press account of the school board's Finance Committee meeting, Board member Chris Cowen was quoted as asking what was needed to pass a budget above the tax cap.  Sixty percent (60%) of the voting public has to approve a budget which exceeds the tax cap.  The question isn't surprising.  I have been expecting it since last year.

When the budget results were discussed after the 2011 budget vote, Superintendent Brady made a point of stating that the number of affirmative votes exceeded the tax cap requirements if they came to pass.  Now we are in 2012 and I have been saying since the Finance meeting on February 13th that the recommended budget cuts have been designed to convince the community that they must pass a budget with a tax levy higher than the tax cap (see my post on February 21st).  In a personal e-mail to me, Mr. Brady denied that that was a strategy, but here we are. 

It is my perception that it is a different climate now that the tax cap has actually become a reality.  It doesn't matter that last year's vote was approved by over 60% of the voters.   The economy isn't much better and the public expects municipalities to live within that cap.  The school district is still sitting on almost $5 million in reserves and fund balance.  It seems to me than instead of asking voters to approve a higher tax levy, the Board of Education should be asking the voters' approval to take money out of the capital reserve to cover the shortfall.  That money is taxpayer money paid by their school taxes in years when the fund balance was higher than it ought to have been and could have been returned to the taxpayers then.  I fear that if the Board of Education chooses to exceed the cap, there will be many more voters who show up to vote "NO" to the spending plan.  Just my opinion.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Don't Forget to Advocate for Your Favorite Program!

The first public comment period at tonight's Finance Committee meeting was attended by about fourteen members of the public and six spoke.  No surprises.  Of the six, four advocated for the reinstatement of modified sports.  As I have always said, when you put any sports program on the cut list, the public will come out in support.  Two spoke on behalf of reinstating music positions.  Again, no surprise.  Music is however taking a huge hit with the loss of two full-time music positions.  Potsdam is a very desirable school district for families who value music and the loss of some fine music programs are in the future if Potsdam's Board of Education allows those two positions to go by the wayside.  You might remember that there has been a music position on the cut list for the last three years.  One parent spoke about prioritizing curricular programs and suggested, if I understood her correctly, that,without a strong academic program, it wouldn't matter which sports and extracurriculars were offered.  I agree with her position and think all of the academic programs should be reinstated. 

Many more documents have been produced but I still see about $1.3 million dollars in left over funds from this year's spending plan.  Total reserves and fund balance available for 2012-13 is over $4.6 million dollars, according to a document provided for tonight's meeting.  In addition, we can be pretty certain that there will be some additional state aid.  Why are we still talking about cuts?  The current list of proposed "add backs" seem to be based on the favorite cause of individual Board of Education members (as mentioned at earlier BOE and Finance Committee meetings).  If you have an opinion, don't wait much longer to let administration and Board of Education members know what you think is important for the students in Potsdam.

To review the current documents related to the spending plan, find these documents through the school's website.  Go to the school's home page: , click on Board of Education at top of the school's home page.  Then go to "Committees" and find "Agenda" under Finance.  You will have to pick a year, then a date but it should get you to the agenda for the chosen day.  Scroll down the agenda page and you will see the list of documents which are available.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Economics and State Aid

 Canton Central students have put together a wonderful video, posted on Youtube, that is definitely worth watching:

These students are clearly passionate about their school and seem to be getting the message from their adult leaders that there is no other way to deliver a sound education than to have more money.  I do wish the adults in their world would help them learn  more about economics and how the State Aid for Education system works in this state.

First of all, New York State has been through a recession which has lasted for four years and may last for several more.  When less money is available, it is necessary to spend less money.  We have all implemented this plan for our own household budgets since the recession hit.  Many have had to dig deep into savings just to make ends meet.

To be fair, I believe that many school leaders have been ill-equipped to handle the enormity of this economic impact and have underestimated the extent to which the State and Federal governments are willing and able to help them out.  Remember that the particularly bleak fiscal situation school districts are in this year is because the Federal stimulus money has run out and the State has imposed a tax cap on municipalities.  From reading newspaper articles about school districts' plans for their budgets next year and attending the Finance committee meetings in my own district, I don't believe that administrators and Boards of Education spent the last year trying to figure out what would be done.  They knew this was coming a year ago.  Now it is too late to do anything other than cut and upset everyone.

Second, the funding for almost 690 school districts in New York State is enormously complicated.  There is no one formula that can achieve fiscal equity for every school district.  There are too many variables.  St. Lawrence County schools are going to be very low on the priority list because, relative to New York State's standards, its students are doing well educationally.  In fact, there is not one administrator or teacher in this county who will publicly state that students in this county ought to be getting a better education than they are currently getting.  Even privately, most school staff believe that the education received in St. Lawrence County is as good as it gets.  Why would the State give us more?

Third, there are over 200 school districts that are way ahead in the claim that they need more money because their Need Resource Category identifies them as high need.  It includes New York City which has 1.1 million of the State's 2.7 million students and received $6900 per student during 2011-12.  This explains why the Campaign for Fiscal Equity went after the State on behalf of New York City's students. In contrast, Potsdam received  $8900 per student and Canton received $9600.  There are about 350 school districts that are designated average need districts, which is where Potsdam and Canton find themselves.  Finally, there are just about 125 out of the 690 school districts in all of the state that are considered low need districts.  I am not sure how much state aid money the low need districts get in their entirety, but I would bet that you could take it all away and not make a dent in the amount of aid average needs districts think they should have. 

Finally, if our school leaders want to do what is best for our students, they will get down to business, harness the creativity within their communities (including its students), and figure out a way to do more (or as much) with less.  Because, as we all know, more does not mean better.

Saturday, March 17, 2012


$26,000,000 is a lot of money and it should be enough to educate 1400 students.  When I was Chair of the Potsdam Board of Education's Finance Committee, I was astonished that anyone could think that we didn't have enough money to fulfill the mission of educating our students.  It is all a matter of priorities and how we choose to allocate that money.

Let me give an example.  Until 2008, members of the Potsdam Teacher's Association did not contribute to the cost of their health plan.  From 2008-2012, they contributed 2-3% to the approximate $1.4 million dollar cost of that plan.  With the most recent agreement, they will contribute 6-9% to the costs of the plan.  One could argue that that is progress.  But with every contract approval, there have been salary increases above and beyond the rate of inflation which offset the costs that individuals would have to pay for their health insurance.  It is called "holding the employees harmless".

This level of contribution has not been the same for other members of the staff at Potsdam Central.  During this same time period, administrators have been paying 10% of the costs of their health care premiums and CSEA staff have been paying an average of 15% (nothing for single coverage and up to 25% for family coverage).  Don't get me started on the lowest paid employees paying the highest percentages of health insurance. 

What about the quality of the health plan?  Paying very little for a limited plan might be justified because there could still be many extra costs for its subscribers.  However, the St. Lawrence-Lewis Health Insurance Plan is Cadillac quality in the world of health plans.   Administrators and Board members for the last ten years have shaken their heads when attending workshops about bargaining issues or doing research on health care plans for school staff.  They have reviewed many other plans in the state and across the nation and have yet to find one as good.  This is an important issue because the Teacher's Union has often said that they are willing to change plans, if the benefits remain the same. Impossible, as it turns out.  The St. Lawrence-Lewis Health Insurance Plan premium cost increases are often in the double digits, completely absorbing extra monies that the State provides to the districts in extra aid.

In ten years, the Potsdam Central School's Spending Plan has increased from $19 million dollars to $26 million dollars, a 37% increase.  During the same time, healthcare costs for all employees has gone from $2.7 million dollars to over $4 million dollars, a 50% increase.  Where has all of the money gone?  As I said at the beginning, it is all a matter of priorities.

Friday, March 16, 2012


    As a former teacher, I was a NYSUT member and, in addition, I come from a family filled with teachers (brother, both sisters-in-law, nephew, niece, cousins) all of whom are or were members of NYSUT. My father, as an immigrant to this country, was in a laborers' union. I understand the need for unions. At their best, they provide much needed representation for members.
    For many years, I thought that being a member of a union meant that the union leaders would certainly work hard to try to save the jobs of members who are at or near the bottom of the seniority lists. I now know this to be untrue. A union president even stated, in my presence, that it wasn't his/her job to be concerned about job losses. Another union president was equally unconcerned about the loss of jobs. That not only surprised me - it shocked me.
    My advice to union members, either Teachers' Unions or CSEA who are at or near the bottom of the seniority list, is to unite and run for officer positions, join the ranks of union leadership committees, and position themselves on negotiations committees. Don't be naive, like I once was, and assume your interest is being represented.


Thursday, March 15, 2012


    The issue of bullying continues to plague schools. When I attended a NYS School Boards conference, Barbara Coloroso, lecturer and author, spoke on this topic. Her book, the bully, the bullied, and the bystander, is excellent and her presentation was the talk of the conference with standing room only.
    Coloroso noted that kids often don't report bullying because, among other reasons, they are ashamed and because they might believe that adults are part of the lie [that bullying is just part of growing up] and because some adults are bullies, too.
    Due to the 2010 NYS anti-bullying law known as the Dignity for all Students Act, schools in the state now have to have anti-bullying policies "to foster civility in public schools and to prevent and prohibit conduct which is inconsistent with a school's educational mission."  This law requires schools to report "material incidents of discrimination and harassment on school grounds or at school functions" to the Commissioner on at least an annual basis. It requires instruction in civility, citizenship, and character education. 
    The New York State School Boards Association has provided schools with a sample anti-bullying policy (0115).  This can be viewed on the NYSSBA website. This sample policy provides language prohibiting all forms of discrimination, such as harassment, hazing, intimidation, and bullying. Student bullying or harassment that occurs off school grounds (like cyberbullying) may be under the auspices of the school to handle if such actions materially interfere with the operation of the school.
   As the PCSD crafts its anti-bullying policy, I realize that it will be fairly easy to write a good policy. What will be difficult will be creating a climate where students and employees are informed about bullying behaviors (by students and adults) and know what to do about them. This will take time and effort. Additionally, administrators will have to make the issue a priority. Giving bullies a slap on the wrist  will resound with all. They will know that the harassment and bullying are not being taken seriously. Barbara Coloroso said that the "boys will be boys" excuse is a lie. "We taught them this" and, we must unteach it. I don't mean to imply that bullying is the exclusive domain of males - female bullying is just as big a problem.
    Adult bullying is often overlooked. There can be teacher-to-teacher bullying, administrator-to-teacher bullying (and its reverse), and teacher-to-student bullying. The last one is particularly disturbing because students are often so ill-equipped to stand up for themselves. According to Alan McEvoy, PhD, " is an abuse of power that tends to be chronic and often is expressed in a public manner. It is a form of humiliation that generates attention while it degrades a student in front of others." Fortunately, most teachers do not bully students but when it occurs, administration must take action to help the teacher and the students.
   I hope the PCSD ends up with a paradigm shift and a substantive commitment to addressing the issue of bullying/harassment. A well-thought-out and written policy is nothing if it is not enforced. Change will only occur when there is accountability for bad behavior. And in some cases, it is criminal behavior. 


Monday, March 12, 2012

What's Next for the Spending Plan?

Congratulations to the demonstrators at Saturday's Legislative Breakfast!  Our Legislators haven't seen anyone other than School Board members and Superintendents at this function for at least twenty years.  This event has usually been very scripted.  So good for the demonstrators!

But what's next?  Both our NYS Senate and Assembly representatives didn't offer much more for our State Aid package than the $250 million that the Governor had set aside for competitive grants.  By the Alliance for Quality Education's calculations, Potsdam Central might get as much as $150,000 in additional State Aid.  There will still be a gap of over a million dollars. 

Make sure the School Board members and administrators know your thoughts about the proposed cuts.  You have three opportunities in the next couple of weeks.  Tomorrow, at the regular school board meeting, the members will be reviewing the spending plan.  It begins at 7:00 PM in the High School Library.  You may speak during two Public Comment opportunities.  Thursday, there is a Community Forum at 7:00 PM at the Middle School. This meeting is very interactive with many opportunities to speak your mind.   The next Finance Committee meeting is next Tuesday, the 20th, at 6:00 PM (time has been changed to this), also at the High School Library.  Chairperson Pat Turbett offers two Public Comment opportunities, if needed.

Demonstration is needed at these meetings if devastating cuts are to be avoided.  Don't miss the opportunities.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

PCS and the Day Care Debacle

    I recently received a phone call from a former PCS BOE member who was on the Board back in 1993 when the original agreement among the PCSD, the day care center, and the Village of Potsdam was crafted. This member had a number of questions for me about what has transpired over the years and what the implications are for the school district.
    To begin, on 3/9/12, the Daily Courier-Observer ran a story about the day care center. The article states, “Given the current terms of the building’s lease, Potsdam Planning and Development Director Fred Hanss said the day care is not behind in their payments to the village.” While this is true, it distracts the reader from a much more significant truth – namely that for the first ten years on an original 1993 debt of approximately $502,000 (loan: $331,243,83 plus 4.5% interest: $171,702.57), the day care paid only about $500/month instead of $2095.61 and, thus, was in default and would very likely end its second ten-year lease without coming close to paying its mortgage off.
    Back in 2003, PCSD attorney Don Budmen wrote the following in a memo to Peter Lekki (Village attorney):
“…Building Blocks, like its predecessor, has been unable to make monthly payments of sufficient size to cover the principal and interest on the Village’s loan for construction of the Day Care Center. As a result, there is currently, a $452,000 balance owed on an initial loan of $330,000. Given the size of this balance, it was clear to all of the parties at the table that following a 10 year renewal of the lease, [2003-2013] the loan will still not be paid off.” 
    In June of 2004, the Village legally decreed (in a leasehold modification agreement) that Building Blocks, Inc. was in default of its mortgage and was permitted to pay $500/month as full monthly payments on the mortgage “for so long as Building Blocks, Inc. continues in possession of the building.” Therefore, from then till now, the day care has been paying $500/month. At the repayment rate of approximately $60,000 per decade, wouldn’t it take over eighty years to pay off $500,000?  
    Giving such a generous mortgage to the day care center seems to some like a subprime loan.  “In finance, subprime lending means making loans to people who may have difficulty maintaining the repayment schedule. These loans are characterized by higher interest rates and less favorable terms in order to compensate for higher risk.”
In the case of the day care, the loan was characterized by having more favorable terms and by having the interest forgiven.
    What are the implications for the PCSD?
Ø  The PCSD was advised by its legal firm to disassociate itself from the day care center, once the current lease ends in 2013, because the relationship has been fraught with legal difficulties.  Documents read by Colleen Heinrich, Esq. were characterized by her as troubling.   
Ø  PCSD officials have stated many times that the day care center will be a needed building. Therefore, the school district should use the building for district purposes. The BOE officially and unanimously declared the day care building as needed in a resolution in 2011 and, if it reverses itself, it will have to prove the building to be unneeded
Ø  Within the next five years, the PHS could very well find itself as a regional high school. Since this has been anticipated by many, space will be in demand for the District. The day care building has already been examined as a place to move the Central Offices and the CSE Offices so that more instructional space would be eked out of the high school.
Ø  The District also needs to take possession of its building in May of 2013 because that is the smartest way to protect the District’s long-promised asset.  If the PCSD permits Building Blocks, Inc. to stay past the end of the second ten-year lease period, will the District jeopardize its legal standing? Could the PCSD be sued for the hundreds of thousands still due on the Building Blocks mortgage?
Ø  The whole PCSD/Day Care/Village deal started out with questionable planning, a deplorable lack of transparency, and stunning deceptiveness.(I can only speak for myself when I say that I was not apprised of the fact that BOE action on the matter in 1993 made the PCSD taxpayers liable for any unpaid Building Blocks mortgage obligations at the end of their two ten-year lease periods. It was illegal for the BOE to make the District a co-signer to the loans.) The architects of the day care plan hid behind the mantle of poor children in order to sell the day care concept to the BOE and the public. SED monies were improperly funneled to the day care back in the ‘90’s to help day care officials pay bills. When this was reported to SED, officials came to the PCSD to investigate. The District was told to manage NYSED funds properly or risk losing them. The Pre-K teacher, was not legally hired and was, thus, illegally paid. Only Board action to hire an individual permits a superintendent to release public funds to pay an employee. The District hired the teacher properly (and legally) years after the fact and only when I discovered what had transpired and made it public. 

     Boards of Education are required by law to make decisions based on what is in the best interest of the school district.  Let's avoid another debacle or a continuation of this one.

Friday, March 9, 2012

PTSA Advocacy

    Last night the PTSA organized a meeting at the High School to discuss the budgetary crisis facing the school district and what measures can be taken to advocate for needed funding to average and high needs school districts - like Potsdam Central.
    Rachel Wallace, the PTSA vice-president for Lawrence Avenue, led the meeting. She, and other PTSA officers, encouraged those in attendance to go to SUNY Canton on Saturday, March 10th, at 7:45 AM.  Each year a legislative breakfast is held in Canton where Board of Education members and Superintendents can pose questions to legislators. The PTSA is hoping for a large turnout to send the message to legislators that we are extremely concerned about the NYS aid cuts to education.
    Schools like Potsdam and Canton, which are heavily dependent on State aid, are forced to make up budget deficits by laying off teachers and other employees and by cutting programs. Some have questioned if Governor Cuomo is trying to force mergers in rural areas by making it impossible for such districts to stay solvent.
    The PTSA is also trying to gather their own Listserv so they can communicate directly with concerned members of the Potsdam School community. If you would like to be on their list, just send your name and e-mail address to Rachel Wallace ( 
    The group discussed the need to send letters to legislators in order to lobby for a change in the formula used to determine aid to schools (old data is currently used in the formula and an update would help the PCSD). Also, it was advised that community members should consider including in their letters to legislators their concerns about the Combined Wealth Ratio (CWR).
   The CWR is a measure of relative wealth, indexing each district against the statewide average on a combination of two factors, property wealth per pupil and income wealth per pupil. (In other words, the assessed value of properties within a school district and the family incomes within the district.) The CWR has a floor and a ceiling. In the St. Lawrence-Lewis Boces region, 16 out of 18 school districts have a CWR below the floor of 0.65. Potsdam Central's is 0.502. Thus, our school district is treated as wealthier than it is and rich school districts who are above the ceiling, are treated as poorer than they actually are. At risk of stating the obvious, when our school is treated as wealthier than it is, we receive less education aid.
    Please consider writing to our legislators to lobby for fair and responsible financing for high needs and average needs schools. 

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

PCSD Named in Complaint to NYS Comptroller

    Potsdam Central School is among three entities named in a complaint to the NYS Comptroller. The complaint, recently filed by Richard and Jane Hollister, centers around the use of public monies to build and support the Building Blocks Day Care Center – formerly known as Potsdam Day Care Center (PDCC).  The Hollisters allege “financial misconduct, false statements to taxpayers, and pure fabrications.” 
    According to the complaint, “Financing for the facility was to come from $330,000 in Community Development Application funds through the Potsdam Village and $170,000 in HUD funds.” At the time, the Hollisters challenged the legality of the deal via a complaint to the NYS Commissioner of Education. The Commissioner found for the district because, in a sworn deposition (from the then superintendent and Board president) sent to the Commissioner, it was stated that the benefit to the PCSD (a legal requirement) was that after two ten-year leases (the maximum permissible by State Ed. Law), the school district would own the $500,000 building free and clear.
    Near the end of the first ten-year lease, in 2003, the Hollisters approached then PCSD Superintendent of Schools, Sylvia Root, and told her that the paperwork signed by the BOE back in 1993, made the PCSD co-signers to the day care center’s loans - a violation of NYS Education law. Thus, the daycare center, with a history of insolvency, could walk away from its mortgage debt at the end of the second ten-year lease and hand the building and the debt (hundreds of thousands in remaining mortgage) to school district taxpayers. Attorneys for the PCSD found that the Hollisters were correct in their assertion and, subsequently, legal agreements were drawn up by school district attorneys to ensure that the PCSD taxpayers would not be liable (at the end of the second lease period - 2013) for unpaid Building Blocks mortgage obligations. 
    The day care center is now nearing the end of its second ten-year lease and its officials have  publicized that they will build a new million-dollar daycare center.  That leaves the PCSD with a building, the daycare heading on to bigger and better - despite not coming close to paying its current mortgage, and the Village with a huge unpaid debt.

    As a post script, on 11/2/09 the Village of Potsdam "adjusted the original principal amount of a loan made to Potsdam Day Care, Inc. and its successor - Building Blocks, Inc. to $330,000. Further to alter the terms of the loan to zero percent interest as per the leasehold mortgage modification agreement signed on June 8, 2004. The total amount of payments made toward this loan shall be deducted from this principal resulting in a loan balance of $242,426.34 as of October 31, 2009." The interest on the mortgage appears to have been forgiven.
    As an additional post script,  I was on the PCS Board of Education back in 1993 when the Board approved the agreement to lease school property to this private, not-for-profit day care center. Fortunately, I did not vote to approve the deal primarily because Mr. and Mrs. Hollister cast significant doubt on the legitimacy of the agreement. Interested members of the public can FOIL for a copy of the complaint from the office of the NYS Comptroller - Thomas DiNapoli. 

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

What About Special Education?

For months, the PCS Board of Education has been hearing about the district's lack of compliance issues in the area of special education.  Yet the proposed strategic budget plan originally eliminated two teachers, four aides, a .75 keyboard specialist and .5 BOCES school psychologist.  The most recent add backs included the keyboard specialist and school psychologist for administrative functions.  Isn't there a greater potential for compliance issues with the reduction of the teachers and aides?  The strategic plan even mentioned that the aides can only be reduced if IEP's are modified.  Who is watching to make sure that our neediest students get what they need and are legally entitled to have?

Monday, March 5, 2012

Reinstate a Teacher

    The most important people in children's educational lives are their parents. The most important people in children's educational lives, while at school, are their teachers.
    Therefore, again, I must continue to advocate for cutting an administrative job and replacing that cut with the reinstatement of a teacher. At the last Finance Committee meeting, both Jamie Cruikshank and Joanne Chambers discussed the class load burdens on teachers. They discussed having HS teachers sent to AAK and having 8th graders go to the HS for certain courses. Lawrence Ave., AAK, and the HS are all feeling the tremendous burden of teacher cuts over the last few years. When I look at the administrative positions currently in existence, I believe the AD/Dean position should be cut and a teacher should be taken off the cut list. Mr. Brady stated that the AD has to show up at many sports events -  implying that the job is very time-consuming. Well, why not re-think the obligations of the AD position and offer the job, at a lower pay with fewer obligations, to a teacher?
    An additional problem with handing a teaching job to an administrator is that it is impossible to wear both hats. When an administrator/teacher is sitting in the Teachers' Room and hears the conversations in the room, can the admin/teacher really take off the administrator hat? Would teachers even feel free to speak freely with an administrator there? I believe there are unanticipated problems with creating an administrator/teacher (AD/PE) position.
    I strongly encourage the BOE to re-think this recommendation. The protecting of administrators' jobs, when so many teachers, aides, assistants, secretaries, clerks, etc. have lost their jobs, is unacceptable and unfair.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Spending Plan Add Backs

As many of you already know, there were several positions recommended for restoration by Superintendent Brady at the end of the Finance Committee meeting last Thursday.  He talked about a possible job share in the 4th grade (the Board of Education has to approve it), two elementary positions, staffing for the Math lab, a high school Math position (to go to the middle school), a secretary for the Special Education office, and a BOCES school psychologist.  It was a very long meeting and everyone was tired but I am wondering why Mr. Brady didn't mention that he has recommended the restoration of all of the modified sports and intramural programs?  The cost is almost $46,000.  Why would those programs have precedence over academic areas? 

The Tax Cap: Educating the Public May Not Be Easy

As most of us know, the NYS Legislature passed a landmark Property Tax Cap law that requires that property taxes levied by local governments and school districts not increase by more than either 2% or the Consumer Price Index (CPI) - whichever is lower.

Yet another problem for school districts is that the public may not realize that there are exemptions to the tax cap. "Court judgments, growth in a school district, capital projects, and employee pension costs can allow the taxes to to beyond the 2% limit."

Some have speculated that the public, expecting a 2% limit on the amount which a school district can increase its annual tax levy but getting a higher percentage presented to them, may mistakenly believe that school officials are attempting to circumvent the the law.

It is important that we all understand this new law so that school districts are not unfairly accused of trying to find ways to avoid compliance.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Great Website

District Superintendent Thomas Burns drew my attention to the Statewide School Finance Consortium (SSFC). The link is:

The SSFC is an organization of approximately 360 NYS public school districts who are united in an effort to get equitable distribution of NYS aid to education. One can read the latest news, learn about advocacy tools, and view videos. If you scan down to Top Videos you can view videos by Dr. Rick Timbs. I can't recommend them enough.
Also, you can read about the Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) initiative. A  2/16/12 letter to the Governor (and others) points out that NYS has not complied with the successful CFE lawsuit. School funding was found to be unconstitutional as the distribution of the funding did not provide for a sound basic education for all students in the State. Anyway, this website is worth viewing.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Downstate vs. Upstate

Many of you have been shown a slide comparing a downstate school district's cut in state aid with that of a St. Lawrence County school district.  It has been shown in several presentations with at least three school districts.  The downstate school district is Dobbs Ferry in Westchester County.  While I was watching the presentation of this information, it occurred to me that the St. Lawrence County public who have seen the comparison might think that ordinary residential taxpayers in that district pay lower taxes than we do. I decided to try to find out.  After researching the school tax rates for Dobbs Ferry and re-calculating because their equalization rates are very different, the true tax rate per thousand appears to be $24.55.  That amount is very similar to Potsdam's so one might think that all is comparable.  However, the assessed value of homes is very different in Westchester County when compared with those in St. Lawrence County.  When Potsdam published their 2011-12 budget newsletter, they used homes valued at $70,000 and $100,000 to illustrate how much taxes would change.  When Canton published information about their capital project prior to the recent vote, they used a home valued at $100,000 to illustrate how the capital project would affect the taxpayer's bill.  What value of a home did the Dobbs Ferry school district use in their 2011-12 budget newsletter to illustrate the impact of the increase in the tax levy? $597,000.  Since school districts typically pick an average value of a home for the budget newsletter, this is likely an average assessment for a home in the Dobbs Ferry school district.

So what?  As I mentioned in an earlier post, the tax rate per thousand in the Potsdam school district is about $23.81 so a taxpayer with an average home assessed at $100,000 would pay $2,381 before the STAR rebate.  On the other hand, that taxpayer in Dobbs Ferry with an average home assessed at $597,000 would pay over $14,000 before STAR in school taxes, over six times as much as the Potsdam taxpayer. That is a much bigger commitment to a school district budget than most anyone in St. Lawrence County.  So I thought, OK, a taxpayer in Dobbs Ferry must earn much more money than a taxpayer in Potsdam.  Not true.  According to the U.S. Census Bureau's quick facts, the median income for households in Potsdam is $50,000 and, for Dobbs Ferry, the median income is $100,000.  Now that is twice as much, but can that household afford more than $1,000 per month just in school taxes? 

What's my point?  I don't believe that we should be making comparisons about state aid received by wealthy downstate schools and St. Lawrence County schools. There are many different issues.  Let's talk about how we are going to solve our problems without expecting the State to bail us out. 

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Progress on the Spending Plan

Long finance committee meeting tonight, but there was progress!  Administration brought creativity, Board of Education members brought good questions and thoughtful ideas, and there were friendly exchanges about pointed topics.  There is still a long way to go before a satisfactory resolution to the budget gap is resolved, but there are still those reserves......  I am wondering where the public is.  They weren't at the Tuesday night Board of Education meeting and only a few were present tonight.  I hope that they don't wait too long to advocate for their favorite programs because teachers and other expenses are already being added back.  

Invest 5 Minutes in this Video

To understand more fully the issue of inequitable funding (or disproportionate funding) of schools in our area (average and high needs schools), take five minutes and look at this video by Dr. Rick Timbs.

It provides us with information we need to help lobby for proper funding for schools, like the PCSD, who are very dependent on NYS aid to education.