Saturday, January 26, 2013

Access to Information - DENIED!

Why is the Potsdam Central School District refusing to release to the public a document deemed public by the New York State Committee on Open Government (NYS COOG)?  Repeated requests to administration for a preliminary strategic budget plan discussed at the December 18th Board of Education Finance Committee meeting have been denied.  Three separate requests for this plan were made by this author, all of which were either explained away or denied.  Consultation with the NYS COOG regarding public access to this type of document confirmed that the preliminary strategic budget plan should be made public.

Development of the Potsdam Central School spending plan for 2013-14 has been on-going for months.  At the November 29th meeting of the PCS Board of Education (BOE) Finance Committee, budget discussions projected a $1.5 million dollar deficit for the next school year.  Several documents are listed on the agenda for the committee's meeting, all of which are accessible to members of the public.  According to the budget calendar, a strategic budget plan to close the gap between revenues and expenses was to be discussed at the next meeting.

The online agenda for the December 18th meeting of the BOE Finance Committee (postponed from December 13th) listed two documents, Finance Committee Goals and Preliminary Strategic Budget Plan.  After the agenda was posted, the Goals document was accessible online, but the Preliminary Strategic Budget Plan was not.  This is not unusual, because administration likes to wait until the actual meeting to reveal that type of information.  This author expected to be given a copy of the document at the meeting as has been done in the past.  It wasn't made available.

During the course of the meeting, under #3. Strategic Budget Plan on the agenda, all of the principals and department heads were asked to present to committee members possible personnel and program cuts.  It was evident that school personnel at the meeting were following along with a document which could be viewed on their computers.  The Board of Education has adopted paperless access to documents and all have a computer at meetings, as do our school leaders. 

After the meeting, this author asked Superintendent Brady for a copy of the document.  The response was that he didn't want the information to be reported before the holidays because school staff had not been informed of the reductions.   On January 10th, because the document had still not been "unlocked" on the online agenda, I asked the Records Access Clerk, via e-mail, for the Preliminary Strategic Budget Plan.  The response that I received was that "the Preliminary Strategic Budget Plan document is a working document of the Board and there (sic) is not available to the public at this point."

 Having had some experience with working documents and the Freedom of Information law, I went to the New York State Committee on Open Government (COOG) website, found their opinion on working documents and sent a specific request for the document to the school district along with a copy of the COOG opinion.  A few days later, I received an official letter denying access to the document, citing the advice of counsel.

Still convinced that this document should be available to the public, I sent an email to Robert Freeman, Executive Director of the New York State Committee on Open Government, for an opinion.  I included a copy of the agenda and the denial letter.  The response, from Camille S. Jobin-Davis, Assistant Director of the COOG, re-affirmed my belief.  Her response stated

"This will confirm our opinion that a document such as the one that you describe, a preliminary strategic budget plan, would be required to be made available at least in part pursuant to FOIL and according to the legal analysis set forth in the following advisory opinion: "

In past years, the strategic budget plan documents have been made available.  What is being hidden?  It is unacceptable that this year's preliminary strategic budget plan document has not been made available to the public.  This is not just this author's opinion, it is the law.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Governor's Proposal Has Been Released!

When Governor Cuomo presented his budget proposal this afternoon, education funding was what most everyone expected, about a 4% increase in school aid.  During his speech, the Governor noted that 75% of the increase will go to High Need school districts, with 69% of all of the school aid going to those same districts.

This does not include Potsdam CSD or Canton CSD.  They are Average Needs districts.  Both districts will receive only about $300,000 in Gap Elimination Adjustment Restoration funds.   The school aid runs are out and although they are a little confusing, just look for the line labeled GEA Restoration. The state aid run can be difficult to maneuver through.  Keep in mind that the document is organized by county.  St. Lawrence County begins on page 63 and can be found here: 13-14 Governor's Proposal School Runs

At first glance, it appears that Canton will receive almost $1.3 million dollars more than this year.  Look more carefully and you will notice that most of the money is for categorical aids, such as special education, transportation and building aids, which are received after the expenses have occurred.

On the other hand, Potsdam appears to be getting only $30,000 more than this year's aid.  Again, look carefully, and you will discover that building aid is down approximately $265,000, so less aid will be received in that category.

Isn't it finally time to get down to business?  According to statements made by Potsdam's Superintendent Brady, it is estimated that there is a $1.5 million dollar gap between revenues and expenses for the 2013-14 spending plan.  Now we know that it is likely the district is only going to get about $300,000 more than last year.  According to Canton's Superintendent Gregory, Canton will be forced to reduce 20 or more faculty and staff positions unless the Gap Elimination Adjustment is fully restored.  They too are getting only about $300,000 in additional aid, not the $2.1 million dollars they were looking for.

I heard one small ray of hope in the Governor's presentation this afternoon.  Governor Cuomo announced an additional $203 million dollars for school districts for Fiscal Stabilization Funding.  This was described as one time funding to help compensate for extraordinary increases in fixed costs, such as pensions.  If approved by the Legislature, these additional funds may help offset a few layoffs.  Fingers crossed!

Friday, January 18, 2013

PCSD: Fiscal Crisis

It was reported by PCSD officials that health care premiums and pension hikes will add another $800,000 in costs to the bottom line for the next school year. In addition, district officials project that another $75,000 will be needed for salary increases. Many other costs are predicted to increase as well but the primary costs in schools are for salaries and benefits. The problem, at the PCSD and in most public schools, is not the salaries paid to employees but the unsustainable costs of benefits.

The district projects the following increases:

                 2012 -2013      2013-2014         2014-2015      2015-16         2016-17
Salaries    $9 million (M)       $9.1 M          $9.35 M         $9.65 M          $9.9 M

Benefits   $7.15 million        $7.9 M           $8.4 M            $9.2 M            $10M

School officials report that benefits:

  • For the current school year (2012-13) are 79% of the salaries. 
  • For 2014-15, will be 90% of the salaries.  
  • For 2016-17, are expected to exceed the amount paid in salaries (benefits will be 101% of salaries).
  • In 2008-09 benefits totaled $6.5 million. This year they are $7.1 million. In four years, they are expected to be $9.9 million. 
Officials report that salaries:
  •  Will increase by approximately $300,000 per year from 2014 through 2016. 
The runaway and unsustainable costs lie in the benefits guaranteed to employees through their locally negotiated contracts. One might reasonably predict that since both the Board of Education president and vice-president have spouses in PCSD unions, that there will be little impetus on the part of the Board to do something significant to address benefit costs that in a few years will exceed the cost of salaries. 

What needs to happen?

  1. Lobby Legislators and the Governor: The PCSD superintendent was quoted (11/27/12 Watertown Times) as saying that district officials have lobbied the NYS Legislature and the NYS Budget Office for equity in funding for schools. Additionally, he asked the Mandate Relief Council to place a limit on the percentage of Health Insurance costs that public schools must contribute to employees' premiums. Kudos to him for taking on one of the elephants in the room.Tedra Cobb and Rachel Wallace have been leaders in encouraging the public to lobby the Governor and Legislature to end the GEA (gap elimination adjustment), to reform the school aid formula, to use up-to-date data to determine the CWR (combined wealth ratio), and to provide mandate relief to school districts.
  2. Lobby Your Superintendent and Board of Education: The local union contracts are negotiated and signed by the superintendent of schools. The Board of Education votes on ratification - which means they vote to release the money to pay for the contract provisions. The superintendent and the BOE need to hire attorneys who specialize in contract negotiations (to handle the negotiations). Since 1992, when I was first elected to the BOE, I have listened to legal experts explain the benefits of using their services to deal with the most significant financial decisions (union contracts) made by local school officials. Even when management in the PCSD made an extraordinary error in the contract it approved and ratified (leaving out ONE word which then guaranteed tenure rights to non-tenured teachers), the BOE and Supt. still could not be convinced to hire an attorney to handle negotiations. While hiring an attorney to oversee contract negotiations seems like common sense, the PCSD will not change its old habits until the public becomes aware of this major problem and insists upon crucial change. Do not believe anyone who states that hiring an attorney would be too expensive. The PCSD has found out that what is really expensive is dealing with mistakes in its contracts...and they have been very costly.  In the education funding problem in NYS, Albany is only half of the problem; the other half is local superintendents and Boards who are incurring extraordinary future costs that are jeopardizing  the long-range fiscal solvency of school districts. The time has come to stop kicking the can down road for others to handle. 

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Schools & Mandate Relief: What Can We Do?

Because NYS is (and has been) in the midst of a fiscal crisis, cuts have had to be made to curtail spending so the state can begin to live within its means. Government spending, in excess of revenues, is called deficit spending and is unsustainable and unwise.

Governor Cuomo has reduced spending on schools by cutting NYS aid to schools and by supporting the landmark Property Tax Cap (which requires that property taxes levied by local governments and school districts not increase by more than either 2% or the CPI [Consumer Price Index] - whichever is lower).

The significant cuts to education and the passage of the Tax Cap have left schools scrambling and cutting faculty, staff, and programs, and facing insolvency. It only makes sense that since public schools are facing NYS aid cuts (or flat aid) and taxation limitations (Property Tax Cap - unless a supermajority of voters permits exceeding the limit) that NYS legislators should give schools long-promised relief by cutting onerous and costly mandates. The Governor even formed a Mandate Relief Council to travel around NYS for a year to gather information.

Unfortunately, the Mandate Relief Council voted down all but 14 requests for relief. See:

For real mandate relief, many have suggested the following:

1. Health Insurance Costs: Potsdam Central School District officials requested of the Mandate Relief Council that there be a cap on the percentage the employer pays toward the health insurance premiums thus requiring employees and retirees pay a set percentage. District officials do deserve credit for giving voice to an issue that they have felt somewhat helpless to address in negotiations. Who will solve this problem - NYS or local districts via negotiations? Each seems to be tossing the ball to the other.

2. Triborough Amendment: This amendment to the Taylor Law mandates pay raises even when a contract expires and guarantees that all provisions of an expired contract remain in tact when a contract expires.
    The central problem is that this is a formula for union negotiators to delay agreeing on a new contract. A retired CSEA employee on the PCS CSEA negotiations' team even told me that a Teachers' union officer advised CSEA to delay in their negotiations because management would surely be asking for an increase in the employees' contributions to the skyrocketing costs of health insurance premiums.

For a list of unfunded mandates on NY's public schools, see: 

    What can the public do? Lobby the Governor and NYS politicians. The Governor's Mandate Relief Council dodged the issue of health insurance costs and the Triborough Amendment by directing the commission to omit recommendations that are under the auspices of existing State Law (i.e. Triborough) or under the obligations of contracts between schools and employees (Health Ins. contributions). See:

    The role of locally crafted contracts in the current dire financial situation facing so many North Country schools will be covered in a subsequent blog posting. The problem is not just what NYS is doing with regards to cutting school aid. An equally significant problem is the contracts superintendents are recommending and Boards are ratifying. They are agreeing to staggering and unsustainable future costs.  It is this latter issue that is all but ignored when local officials explain the source of our schools' fiscal problems.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

New Year's Budget Process

Happy New Year!  2013 is already shaping up to be as tense a school budget year as 2012 was.  This is an important week for information about the upcoming 2013-14 budget development process.

On Tuesday, Potsdam Central's Board of Education will have their first meeting of the year.  During information from the Superintendent, the preliminary report from Governor Cuomo's Education Reform Commission will be reviewed.  View the agenda here: Potsdam BOE Agenda 1-08-13

On Wednesday, Governor Cuomo will give his State of the State address, during which there are usually hints regarding his budget proposal, including funds to be allocated for education.  The actual proposal will be released later in the month.

On Thursday, the Potsdam BOE Finance Committee will meet at  6 PM in the High School Library.  Expect review of almost everything except instruction, supervision and staffing, benefits and special education.  Those topics wait until January 29th.

One of the most interesting omissions on both school board agendas will be lack of discussion of the Preliminary Strategic Budget Plan.  When I attended the Finance Committee meeting on December 18th, there was a presentation by all of the supervisors regarding the cuts that were being proposed to begin addressing the $1.5 million dollar funding gap.  A copy of the document being reviewed on the computers sitting at the table was not made available to the public (me) and still has not been released, although anyone with the correct password can access it. 

For a look at the timeline for Potsdam's budget process this year, go to: Budget Calendar 2013-14

Another topic to keep on your radar is the Town of Potsdam's revaluation process which is expected to be complete in time for this year's new assessment rolls.  I predict that the rolls will increase substantially allowing the School Board to exceed the tax cap and demonstrate that the taxes on a $100,000 house will go down (Assessment goes up, tax rate goes down if taxes to be collected remains the same).  However, keep in mind that it is likely that the assessment of that $100,000 property is going to increase so much that the taxpayer will end up paying more for their school taxes. 

Just my opinion.