A Teachable Moment

Former local teacher union pesident Morty Rosenfeld periodically attempts to make sense of the increasingly senseless world of public education.

Federal Tax Code and School Budgets

Most of New York State relies heavily on the property tax to support its local public schools. As a result, communities with a deep property base have generally had outstanding public schools, while property poor districts have been unable to provide the same level of quality. The inherent unfairness of tying the quality of a child’s education to the zip code of his residence is a problem that has had more than its share of lip service and much less serious political discussion than it deserves.

The recent changes in the tax code restricting the deductibility of state and local taxes and mortgage interest will make the discussion of how we finance our public schools even more vital. In communities like the Long Island suburb in which I live, it is almost impossible to have a conversation with a fellow citizen without the subject of ever-escalating property taxes coming up. While most communities have historically supported their local school budgets, they have done so grudgingly. Here in New York, the exasperation over ever-rising property taxes led our craven politicians to pass a property tax cap rather than reassess how we raise money to support our public institutions. While the property tax cap has and will continue to significantly damage our public schools, public pressure to reduce these taxes even further is a sure thing now that the federal government is reduced its subsidy of home ownership.

posted by Morty in Uncategorized and have No Comments

Tax Reform and Public Education

Financing education off of a property tax is among the worst tax policies we live with in New York and elsewhere. Families living next door to each other in identical homes may have widely disparate incomes; yet, they pay the same amount to support their public schools. Property taxes are unfair on a number of levels. In communities with meager tax bases, local public schools tend to be resource starved, although they often are charged with educating the neediest students. While most of the politicians I’ve spoken to over my years as a teacher union leader recognize this, just about none of them was willing to attempt to lead the way towards a more progressive way of financing public education.

Dependent, therefore, on the property tax to finance our schools for the foreseeable future, the tax reform talk coming out of Washington should be of concern to supporters of public education. Among the proposals being discussed by the Trump administration is an end the deductibility of state and local taxes from federal tax returns. In high tax states like New York and California, such a move would throw gasoline on the ever smoldering fires of property tax rebellion and create irresistible pressures to hold the line on property taxes beyond the two percent tax cap we already have on such taxes in New York or Prop 13 mandates in California. While efforts to end these deductions have failed in the past, with Republicans in control of all branches of the federal government, and with the impact of repeal of these deductions falling disproportionately on higher tax blue states, repeal would seem to have a much better chance this time around.

posted by Morty in Uncategorized and have No Comments

Tax Cap Fiasco

The property tax cap in New York is set to deliver a body blow to public services in general and public schools in particular. Set by law at two percent or the rate of inflation, whichever is less, left unamended and without substantial additional state aid, school districts will be faced with close to zero budget increases. Some district like ours will survive for a time. Others will not. Some that have cut programs and staff will go through another round of amputations. A few districts in which leaders have the courage and communities the resources will put up realistic budgets and build political support for the sixty percent vote needed to override the tax cap. While school districts struggle with tax cap issues, as recently as the other day, Senate Majority Leader Flanagan was quoted as saying he didn’t expect any change to the cap in the upcoming session of the legislature.

For most of my career, I’ve written and spoken about the need to finance schools and other public services currently funded off the property tax differently. A highly progressive income tax is my preference, but a NYSUT proposal that has been circulating in Albany for some years would be a decent backup. Called a circuit breaker, it maintains the property tax but ties taxpayers’ liability to their income. While there are various versions of the concept, all bring tax relief to people like fixed income retirees who get squeezed by rising property tax rates. Those who can afford to pay more do, thereby introducing an element of fairness. It’s not a perfect solution but much better that the status quo which left unaddressed will destroy even our best school systems.

Most school districts have weathered the tax cap era as best they could by asking their employees to subsidize the enterprise. Wage freezes, delaying step increases that were themselves designed to suppress wages and other gimmicks that have been spun to be fair to all of the employees but which are seen by those they affect for what they are, an indifference to the needs of those who do the important work. That indifference is breeding anger in staff that I have not seen since the beginning of my career, when our union organized around the unrealistic goal of a starting teacher salary of ten thousand dollars. It’s an anger that expresses itself in much the same terms of the demand used by the pioneers of our union – dignity and respect. They were tired of being treated as children; they were fed up with being paid far less than those in fields requiring similar education and training; they were infuriated by the pedantry of tyrannical administrators. I heard it last night at a board of education meeting some of our staff were asked to attend –RESPECT! I hear it every day. RESPECT! Our members’ demand grows with the indifference shown them. Where it’s all headed, I have only dark premonitions.

posted by Morty in Uncategorized and have No Comments

Tax Cap=Capped Wages

In wealthier school districts in New York, the property tax cap has essentially been a cap on the wages of teachers and support personnel, the people who make the districts work. Districts like Plainview-Old Bethpage have seen no program cuts. We pour more and more dollars into the latest technology, are planning to increase the administrative staff and hire various consultants to do all sorts of things one would have thought we hired the administrators to do in the first place. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to curtail the services available to the children of our community.

Yet, it is quite clear that the wages of the district’s personnel have begun to stagnate, with miniscule raises and a salary freeze having been the history of the last few years. In a very real way, the quality of school districts like mine have been maintained by the essentially capped wages of the staff, the staff having in a very real sense subsidized through diminished salary demands the education of the community’s children. The capping of wages has coincided with a palpable decline in the working conditions of staff, with teachers work becoming more and more test driven and routinized and support staff being asked to do more and more with less and less. The anger of staff is rising. At building union meetings last school year, I had more pointed questions and angry comments about salary and working conditions than ever before. At our last general membership meetings, pay and benefits dominated the discussion, discussion that had a sharp edge to it.

Communities like mine are going to have to come to terms with the fact that their school employees are not going to accept their wages being essentially frozen. They are going to have to be smarter about building their budgets and are going to have to build political coalitions to pass larger budgets that require a super majority to pass. Those coalitions are also going to have to work to build a movement to fund public education off of a more progressive tax than the property tax.

posted by Morty in Uncategorized and have No Comments

Time is Money

Fran Sussner Rogers’ New York Times Op-Ed on the imminent change in the federal rules governing overtime talks about “…the clash between the finite amount of time employees actually have versus the desire of employers to treat time as an inexhaustible resource. And this issue affects everyone, whether eligible for overtime or not.” Although Rogers is a business consultant whose thoughts are aimed primarily at the private sector, they will resonate with America’s teaching workforce as well.

At a time when they are depicted as an unskilled, undereducated, uncaring pro-union lot by a corporate reform movement and their allies in our political class, the fact is today’s teachers, about 75 percent of whom are female, are working much harder than the teachers of my generation, particularly elementary teachers. The typical seven hour work day was never enough to cover all that teachers were expected to do. New standards, new curriculum, new programs, more meetings, greater parental demands, more professional development, more test prep all create the feeling in many that one can never do enough – that there is always something more that a teacher could be doing for her students. In recent years, I’ve had many more conversations with union members who express increasing difficulty meeting the needs of their own families, it still being the case that home and family responsibilities tend to fall disproportionately on women. So many more demands are made of teacher today that I have taken to talking to our members about their responsibilities to themselves and to their own mental and physical health. A line I often reach for is, “If you let them, management will suck the marrow out of your bones.”

This increased actual work load of teachers and the psychic burden attendant to the uncertainties created by the war declared by certain financial/political elites on public education have coincided, not coincidentally, with stagnating teacher wages. The recent financial crisis significantly exacerbated the pressure to hold down the wages of public employees, particularly teachers. Here in New York a property tax cap was put in place, a brilliant political move by bipartisan lawmakers who lack the fortitude to put in place a fairer, more progressive way of financing public services. This completely arbitrary tax cap is stimulating a race to the bottom in teacher salaries and working conditions. In my own district, we are currently dealing with a management that wants a longer school year but is unwilling to pay for it, their belief seeming to be that our time is of no meaning to us. Elsewhere, we see other examples of disrespect for increasingly difficult teacher work. From rising contribution rates to pensions and benefits to the adoption of entirely new and inferior salary schedules for new hires, the time and extraordinary efforts of teachers are undervalued. It appears that the teacher union battles for the dignity of being paid fairly for one’s time need to be fought all over again.

posted by Morty in Uncategorized and have No Comments

A Stupid Solution to a Serious Problem

Not content with the damage they have already done to our public schools and the teachers who serve in them, many of our leaders in Albany are trying desperately to close out the year with a trifecta that includes a tax giveaway to the rich who support private and parochial schools and a permanent property tax cap.

The property tax cap was a stupid solution to a serious problem. The property tax is a dreadfully unfair way to finance public education. Communities vary greatly in the property available to be taxed, ensuring that the zip code in which a child is born will have enormous impact on the resources available to educate him. Then too, within communities there is the problem of people with widely disparate incomes contributing the same amount simply because they own the same model home. Most people recognize these problems with the property tax.

Governor Cuomo and a majority of the legislature recognized the problem but lacked the political courage to fashion an equitable solution. Thus, we got a property tax cap that limits property tax increases to two percent or the rate of inflation, whichever is less. No question the cap has helped some homeowners who legitimately were being squeezed by escalating taxes. But what was left out of the solution was how to maintain the health of the public institutions the taxes support when in a low inflation environment budgets can’t even approach a two percent increase. That question is still not being answered in Albany where the push is on to make the cap, which is set to expire next year, permanent.

There are other more progressive ideas floating around the capitol. The concept of a property tax “circuit breaker,” first proposed by NYSUT some years ago, has once again gotten some attention. While there are various versions of it, the essential concept is to tie one’s property tax liability to one’s ability to pay by not permitting property taxes to go beyond a certain percentage of family income. This is certainly fairer than the current system and an approach that New Yorkers would find acceptable. Such a system would enable us to guard the health of our public institutions. If we don’t do something like this soon, we will see a profound deterioration of our schools and other locally provided public services. We must not make a stupid solution to a serious problem permanent.

posted by Morty in Uncategorized and have No Comments

The Debate

If you watched the New York gubernatorial debate last night, you have to agree that Howie Hawkins offered more clearly articulated substantive proposals than either Andrew Cuomo or Rob Astorino. Actually, the only other candidate to voice some ideas worth thinking about was the Libertarian Party candidate Michael Mc Dermott.

In its coverage of the debate this morning, all the New York Times could find to say about Hawkins and McDermott was, “The debate also included the Green Party nominee, Howie Hawkins, a United Parcel Service worker from Syracuse, and the Libertarian, Michael McDermott, a real estate broker from Long Island. Mr. Hawkins pledged to represent the “99 percent,” while Mr. McDermott expressed frustration with Republicans and Democrats.” The Tomes’ coverage was limited to the exchanges between Cuomo and Astorino which were conveyed in language saturated with boxing metaphor which in no way captured the impoverishment of the ideas of both candidates whose responses were essentially limited to Cuomo calling his opponent a racist and Astorino alleging that Cuomo is a felon who is about to be indicted.

Neither the Times not the candidates felt obliged to grapple with Hawkins’ ideas that included a research backed proposal for complete reliance on renewable energy in 15 years, a single payer health insurance plan and a progressive tax measure that would have the wealthy paying the rates they once paid thereby enabling significant tax relief for most New Yorkers. In education, where Cuomo claimed to have nothing to do with high stakes testing and the Common Core, Hawkins is for ending both and returning education to the control of locally elected officials. He was the only one in the debate who talked about the attempt by corporate interests to promote policies intended to have public schools fail so that they can become corporatized profit centers in the near future.

Last night’s debate is but the latest reminder of how our current political system constricts the flow of ideas, stifling all voices except those of the two brain dead major political parties. My guess is that only a very small proportion of the electorate saw the debate. With the press and media coverage essentially limited to the empty verbiage of Cuomo and Astorino, this will be for most voters an idea-free election. What a shame. Imagine if Hawkins’ best suggestion that we move to a system of proportional representation received serious exposure. I’ll have more to say about that tomorrow.

posted by Morty in Uncategorized and have No Comments

LIFER Snake Oil

I attended a meeting of an organization call LIFER (Long Islanders for Educational Reform) last evening at which New York State Assemblyman Michael Fitzpatrick was a featured speaker. This is a group that seeks to further erode our public employee pension systems, end the requirement that increments be paid after a contract expires and a new one is not yet in place (Triborough Amendment), strengthen the property tax cap and end other programs that they call unfunded mandates but which are often programs that provide important services to children and create employment for our members.

Mr. Fitzpatrick has introduced legislation, part of which would end pensions as we have known them for people beginning their employment in school districts and other government agencies. Instead of a defined benefit pension, one where members can know exactly what they will receive upon retirement, Fitzpatrick wants to offer 401k style plans in which one’s retirement income is dependent on one’s financial acumen. What I found most disturbing about Fitzpatrick’s presence is what he was forced to disclose in response to a question from the audience.

A citizen asked him if in addition to being an assemblyman he worked for an investment bank. Flustered for a moment, he finally said that he worked for Morgan Stanley. But for that question, the audience would not have known that here was an elected representative arguing for a change in something as important as the retirement security of employees who works in an industry that would stand to profit from conversion from a defined benefit plan to a defined contribution plan.

Hacks like Fitzpatrick and the others on the panel last evening simply invent facts to buttress their arguments. Fitzpatrick would have us understand that we are on the road to becoming another Detroit, a statement for which there is not a scintilla of evidence. A smooth talker from a thing called Empire Center ever so effortlessly spewed statistics many of which are patently ridiculous to any but the gullible or the dishonest. My favorite was his repeated statement that the average teacher increment on Long Island was 7 percent in the 2010-11 school year. One of my colleagues proved him wrong from the chart in his own report. But although there knowledgeable people in the audience to correct his more outrageous propaganda, this snake oil salesman still inflamed those in the audiences whose wages are stagnating and whose middleclass life is rapidly receding into believing that it is the devil teachers who are the cause of their economic stress. The more income inequality grows, the more we are going have public servants the scapegoats of an increasingly economically squeezed public.

posted by Morty in Uncategorized and have No Comments

What’s Fair?

Several times in recent months, usually in the context of discussions of financing public education, I’ve had the experience of being at union meetings where the sentiment is expressed that “Long Islanders pay much more in taxes to Albany than they get back.” The speakers, having assumed an inequity, go on to demand that something be done to see to it that we get our fair share. Two speakers, business administrators of Long Island school districts, gave expression to these sentiments at the Take Action Long Island (TALI) event Wednesday at which Diane Ravitch was the featured speaker. One speaker stupidly went so far as to suggest that if we don’t get a greater share of the state’s tax revenue, we ought to pursue statehood. New York State sends more to Washington than we get back, should we be looking at nationhood? Sadly, it was not surprising that these remarks were met with cheers from the audience, even the union activists present who should know better.

Now I well understand the strains of the property tax cap that prompt the anger at Albany. The so-called increase in aid to education this year barely took us back to where we were a couple of years ago. School districts throughout the state are dismantling their programs for lack of funds. At the rate we are going, we are surely following the path of California which once had the finest public school system in the nation until Howard Jarvis and his Proposition 13 capped property tax increases. But we are not going to get out of the mess we’re in and get a fairer formula for financing public education by trying to get more for ourselves at the expense of others less fortunate than we are. Here’s a fact that even some of my union colleagues don’t like to accept. Relative to most of the state of New York, most of our Long Island communities are rich. Think about Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Binghamton and many of the upstate rural communities. Many are teetering on the verge of bankruptcy with no local tax base. Do we think these people can be made to believe that we are being treated unfairly relative to them? Do we think that they and their elected representatives are going to support giving more to their downstate cousins when their communities are in many cases literally dying? For us to call for a greater share of an existing tax revenue pie is both socially regressive and stupid politics.

Rather, as coalition builders, we should be talking about how most of us are getting screwed by a system of taxation that is unfair to every region of the state in that it is not premised on the principles that those who make more should contribute more and that every child in New York State is deserving of the same educational opportunities. We ought to be reaching out across county lines to once and for all end the property tax as a principal source of school revenue, replacing it with the income tax. In short we ought to be talking about fairness for all, even if that means some of us have to pay more, and a fair system of funding the social and infrastructure needs of our society probably does mean that many in attendance at the TALI event would have to pay more. That shouldn’t bother us if we are interested in social justice as we claim to be.

posted by Morty in Uncategorized and have No Comments

NYSUT Strikes at the Property Tax Cap

In a bold legal move, New York State United Teachers announced the filing of a law suit this morning seeking to overturn the recently enacted property tax cap on constitutional grounds. School districts on Long Island, like many in the state, are dealing with a perfect storm of school finance problems. Many, like Plainview-Old Bethpage, are faced with increasing expenses while state aid is cut and the ability to offset those cuts with property tax increases are proscribed by the cap. Changing the law through political action has thus far failed. As so often happens, it may take a legal move like this to wake our legislators and governor up to the damage being done to some of our best school systems.

posted by Morty in Uncategorized and have No Comments