Thursday, July 2, 2015

TC3 to Become TC2?

Tompkins Cortland Community College spans two counties and is supported by financial donations from both. This year, the college went to the counties to request an increase of 4%. Cortland votes first; Tompkins votes in July. At their budget and finance meeting in early June, Cortland legislators agreed on a 2% increase, with all committee members but George Wagner voting yes. Then at their legislative meeting in late June, the whole body voted against any increase at all, with the chair of the budget committee flip-flopping on his original vote. Now either Tompkins picks up the slack, which is doubtful, or the counties allow the college to suck up its reserves, or the college continues to lay off personnel—or renames itself TC2.

George Wagner is quoted as saying that he thinks the college should become its own self-supporting organization. I wonder if he feels that way about all public schools.

The community colleges of New York State were established postwar as state-supported institutions, primarily technical schools at the start. Early on, the state asked local communities to start pitching in to support the technical colleges, which were to become part of a system of community colleges. Funding was set in a 1/3-1/3-1/3 model, with 1/3 coming from the state, 1/3 from the community, and 1/3 from tuition.

Legislation in the 1970s was supposed to increase the state portion to 40%. In 1999, Comptroller McCall put out a report explaining that the state had only met that goal once since it was imposed, and that it had in fact dipped below 30%, causing tuition to increase. Since that time, the legislature occasionally proposes increases on the part of the state, but funding of the colleges continues to be a battle, with students generally taking up the slack as tuition rises, and two-year education becomes out of reach for many families. Most recently, Governor Cuomo has asked to tie college funding to a variety of performance standards, just as he has for the pK-12 schools.

Half of Cortland High's graduates who go to college go to a two-year school, and I'm willing to bet that 98% of those go to TC3. If they're like Dryden's graduates who attend TC3, probably half of them or more need the community college's remedial courses to advance any farther educationally.

Sure, we need to improve pK-12 so that we're not teaching high school make-up courses at TC3. But until we do that, we'd better think about what we get out of our community colleges and whether or not that's worth supporting. The current funding structure isn't working.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Win Some, Lose Some

Here's what the Big Ugly NYS session-ending craziness looks like for schools.

The Good: 1) No tax credit/deduction for private school tuition or scholarship "investment." 2) No raise in the cap on charter schools except in NYC. Since we're not near the cap yet upstate (we have 130 unused charters!), it never made sense to raise it except as a PR move. However, the state is releasing some charters that have been revoked in past years and re-adding them to the total in NYC plus moving four charters from outside NYC to inside NYC. So the increase, even in NYC, is minimal. 3) Money for production of 3-8 tests that will enable State Ed to release items in time for that release to be meaningful. 4) Changes to the tax cap that allow for the creation of rules that exclude certain BOCES capital expenses from a district's overall costs. It remains to be seen what exactly that means for local districts. 5) Changes to the tax cap that take into account development on tax exempt land. Again, the details are sketchy. 6) Inclusion of student characteristics (ELLs, students with disabilities) in the calculation of growth scores for teacher evaluations. 7) Plans for a "review" of the state learning standards, to include "stakeholders."

The Bad: 1) No yearlong delay in implementation of teacher evaluations. 2) The use of independent observers is still required for teacher evaluations. (This is an issue for small [usually poor] districts with a single building—they will have to hire independent observers with administrative certification to observe teachers. Other districts may just move administrators from building to building as needed.) 3) Failure to complete evaluations in a timely fashion is still linked to state aid. 4) $250 million to private schools for mandated services. Although this is to pay for past services, the release of this money is new. I believe the private schools still have to request the funds, as detailed here. 4) Property tax cap still exists. 5) Dollars better spent fixing schools will now be shipped to taxpayers in the form of election-week rebates. 6) No additional funding for needy upstate cities (except for Yonkers).

The Ugly: Well, it sure wasn't pretty.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Right Move

Very pleased to see our assemblywoman standing up for what makes sense rather than bowing to the pressure from those who rely on the Cayuga Power Plant tax revenue and can't imagine life without it. As I wrote back in February, that still leaves Lansing with seven property owners worth over $10 million, compared to Dryden's two.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Tioga Update

Not only did the budget pass by 1076 to 441, a 71 percent "yes" vote, or 11 percent more than the supermajority needed, but also the turnout was higher than in the original election, which never happens. Some 1517 voters (plus absentees) came out this time, compared to 1180 last time. So either the cuts Tioga made were enough, the publicity Tioga put out was effective, or the lure of easy casino money made the whole thing seem worthwhile to the voters.

Or maybe it was the threat of half-day kindergarten. We may never know. Let's hope that this correction helps Tioga stay on course for the next few years.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Private Funding of Public Schools

A Little History

Back in 1895, a judge from Pennsylvania by the name of Handley gave Winchester, VA, a town he had come to love, $1.6 million to use to build schools "for the poor." Because of the judge's request that the bequest be allowed to accumulate interest for 20 years prior to its use, and the board's cautious decision-making, documented in a treatise that you may still read today, the endowment continues to reap benefits for the students of Winchester.

In 2004, our town of Dryden established the Dryden Youth Opportunity Fund, into which residents may deposit money that is in turn used to fund mini-grants for a variety of school and community projects dedicated to the children of Dryden. Typically, the applicants are teachers, 4H leaders, or librarians with special events or programs in mind.

Private funding of public schools is not new. I remember turning away a bid from Coca Cola to establish pouring rights in the schools of Dryden in exchange for significant funding. What I cannot remember is anything like what happened recently to the Tioga Central Schools.

The Tioga Story

Tioga was marked by the comptroller as a school under "medium financial stress" back in January. This rating was based on a variety of things, from the debt held by the district to dwindling reserve funds. In Tioga's case, it appears that the tax rate had been held down artificially for a number of years by dipping regularly into the reserves. In 2014, Tioga residents paid $9.30 per $1000, significantly less than anyone in our county, where the lowest rate is nearly twice that amount.

Anyway, Tioga suddenly recognized that dreaming of better state funding was just that, a dream, and that to keep what they had, they needed to increase their tax levy substantially. They were blocked from doing this by the tax cap. So they went out with a proposed levy increase of 30 percent, praying that the local population would recognize that such an increase would still maintain a lower rate than anyone else around.

To pass over the cap, the district needed a 60 percent "yes" vote. They got 53 percent. Their only options were to go out again with cuts in the budget, to go out again with the same budget, or to revert to a contingency budget that would severely limit their options. They've chosen to go the first route; their new budget has a levy increase of 17.26 percent.

An Ace in the Hole

But Tioga has an ace in the hole in the person of would-be casino tycoon Jeff Gural, who has promised the district nearly $600,000 over two years. Whereas Judge Handley's money came with the caveat "for the poor," Gural's comes with a couple of stipulations: If the voters don't approve the budget tomorrow, they get bupkes. Oh, and if Gural should happen to win a full casino license for his beloved Tioga Downs, the school gets three more years of funding. Our local paper has been all gung ho about the Gural proposal, while at the same time calling shrilly for making the tax cap permanent.

Caveat Emptor

At a lecture Saturday, Zephyr Teachout told us her number-one solution to the problem of corruption in government: Public funding of campaigns. Her point is that private money inevitably comes with strings attached. Coca Cola wants unique rights to fill kids with sugary drinks. One of our local Dryden residents wanted to donate money to get a Bible (New Testament exclusively) into every child's hands. Gural wants people to vote his way and apparently to help him lobby for casino rights.

Back in the 1980s, I met with an exec from Volvo, which had commissioned a guy to write a curriculum based on Volvo's definition of work. The exec was charged with getting this curriculum into U.S. schools, with some dollars attached for the schools that accepted it. It was pretty lousy writing, but what I told the exec was that here in the U.S., we don't just build curricula willy-nilly. Curricula are designed to fulfill the needs of the many, not to satisfy the agenda of the few. I told him what at the time went into the setting of goals and designing of textbooks to match those goals, and he understood. Volvo went away with its curriculum. Maybe it's still part of schools in Sweden.

We open the door to benefactors like Gural at our peril. For the sake of our own future as a nation, we'd better decide once and for all what it is we expect and need from our public schools and then fund them accordingly.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The New Commish

It's a job that one has to be somewhat crazy to want. It's a political job. It's a job that forces you to hold hands with people who want each other's scalps. It's a very, very hard job.

Richard Mills held the job for 14 years, which is something of a miracle in retrospect. The men who followed him held it for two and three years, respectively.

MaryEllen Elia will be the first woman to hold the joint position of Commissioner of Education of the State of New York and President of the University of the State of New York. She will also, I believe, be the first commissioner since Ernest Cole in the 1940s to have roots in upstate New York—she taught in Amherst near Buffalo before moving to Tampa in 1986.

She seems to have done splendidly in the eighth largest public school system in the nation (206,000 students!), rising through the ranks to become superintendent of schools 10 years ago. And she was Superintendent of the Year in Florida and in the running for a national title when it all went south. Her board voted her out by a vote of 4 to 3. The NYTimes treats this ouster fairly cavalierly, but the Tampa Bay Times goes into far more detail. Was it a vendetta by members of the board? Was it a reaction to her backing specific people for board positions? A lack of transparency? Racism? Bullying? Was it about poor communication? Lack of respect? Favoritism?

I've served on enough boards to know that things can blow up for myriad reasons, some of which are completely unreasonable. I am happy to give the Superintendent of the Year the benefit of the doubt in this terribly difficult job—while watching her like a hawk for examples of the sketchy behavior noted in her board evaluations, per the Tampa paper. A commissioner of education, no matter what her reputation with teachers and the business community, will not last long if people start to believe she is biased, secretive, or governing by intimidation.

Elia's base pay as superintendent in Tampa was nearly $40K more than her NYS salary will be, but that loss is no doubt softened by the $1.1 million buyout of her contract.

Welcome back, MaryEllen. You've got serious kishkes, and I wish you luck.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

School Vote Results

The School Boards Association reports that 98.6 percent of all state school budgets passed. The exceptions tended to be those districts that tried to get the 60 percent required to exceed the tax cap, notably Tioga, which went out with a proposed 30 percent tax levy increase. But even in Tioga, a simple majority supported the budget! It appears that although so-called "failing schools" remains a motif in the news, the people who vote still support their local schools.

Locally, every proposition passed. Among interesting results on school boards: A former teacher's aide and two former teachers were the highest vote-getters in Dryden and Ithaca, as Joan Stock took a seat for the first time on the Dryden board, and Moira Lang and Jen Curley ousted incumbents for seats on the Ithaca board. The astonishing Carmon Molino, the 2015 TST BOCES award recipient for exemplary board service (and longevity on the board!), garned more than twice the votes of the other winner in Groton's board race (a write-in!). Longtime former president of the Newfield School Board, Linda Korbel, will return to that board after several years away. A write-in candidate, Michelle Wright, won a seat in Trumansburg with more votes than were earned by some winners in Newfield and Groton.

Here are the board members as of July 2015. An asterisk indicates an incumbent. Unless otherwise specified, all terms are three years long.

DrydenGrotonIthacaLansingNewfieldTrumansburg
Paul Lutwak* (1 yr.)Carmon Molino*Jen CurleyAziza Benson*Linda KorbelDouglas Ann Land*
Lawrence Lyon*Matthew DeMatteoMoira LangJulie Boles*William Scott JacksonMichelle Wright
William Harding* Ann Reichlin   
Joan Stock Sean Eversley Bradwell* (2 yr.)