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Roberta A. Gerold is superintendent of the Middle Country school district.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is a smart politician. He has - very effectively - limited my ability to advocate for public education. In the face of his well-placed diversions, anything I now say as a superintendent will seem self-serving. And I am angry, because the political sound bites - the salary sound bite, the tax-cap sound bite, the anti-teachers union sound bite, the anti-school board sound bite and others - all are distracting us from the real problems in our state, and in our schools.
Let's move past Gov. Cuomo's distracters for a few minutes and consider the following:
Public school districts have become a target for politicians. Over the years, mandates have imposed a slew of costs on public schools. These costs have had limited, if any, connection to or positive impact on teaching or learning. One quick example: Just last year public schools on Long Island, along with every other business, had a tax imposed upon them to help support the MTA - after budgets had already been set. For Middle Country, that was a $350,000 cost - equal to the cost of starting salaries for six teachers. We did get reimbursement of only about 60 percent - not full, as promised - but it came at the end of the school year, months after bills had to be paid. As a result of the expense, the district could not hire six teachers to do extra work with struggling students. And we are required to budget another $350,000 for the 2011-12 school year, without any real expectation of full or timely reimbursement.
Another example: Consider that school districts bear the cost burden of redundant auditing services. These are forced upon all of us, in response to no more than a couple of districts' malfeasance. In Middle Country, the annual cost of duplicate auditing exceeds $50,000 a year - and we realize no benefit.
Relief from unfunded and underfunded mandates can save districts hundreds of thousands of dollars. A list of more than 150 of these costly, unfunded mandates warranting attention has been provided, once again, to our elected officials. We can only hope that meaningful relief is really a priority for those in Albany. Working on mandate relief can be politically sensitive, and it is neither as easy nor as popular as attacking public education.
Home rule - the ability of local school districts to determine their own futures - is in serious jeopardy as well. Each year, Long Islanders vote for board of education trustees and on school district budgets. In all of our county and state, there is no other matter on which we get to express our opinion so regularly and so clearly.
The governor's plans for a cap on tax levies would deny residents the power to make decisions that directly affect their own families and community. In fact, the governor's proposals imply that we do not have the wisdom or ability to make these important decisions for ourselves.
Our board of education trustees have the responsibility to represent the majority's values and expectations; if they don't, it is in our power to vote them out of office. If we move aside the distractions caused by our governor's sound bites, it becomes clear not only that board of education responsibilities are being removed or reassigned to state officials, but also that the concept of simple majority is at risk: It will take a 60 percent majority to override a tax levy cap. Voices of local community residents are being limited.
Distractions that take the focus off the real issues are not, and cannot be, acceptable to us. We must not abrogate our responsibility to work together respectfully and collaboratively. Hard decisions, unpopular decisions, have to be made now . . . and they have to be made about the important issues facing our schools and communities, not about the superficial sound bites that cloud them.
I applaud Roberta Gerold's ability to use facts and logical thinking skills to call out Governor Cuomo's scapegoating tactic. It is clear that Governor Cuomo is playing on the emotions of a tax-weary (and wary) public by singling out the salaries of superintendents, in particular. It is a political strategy to make his case for across-the-board cuts in education by focusing attention on one group that has become a piñata for the politicians and many in the media. It is an effort to get taxpayers to point fingers at the dedicated people who work in our schools as the cause of the state's budget deficit. (As if those people are not taxpayers too!)
Hopefully, the residents who vote on school budgets will use all the facts that their school districts provide during budget deliberations and support what makes sense for their schools and community. Ms. Gerold uses a civil and reasoned approach to the budget issues. Let's count on the public to do the same.
As a former principal, I made it a point to understand state and local politics, but I never played politics in my decisions. Governor Cuomo has a daunting task for sure, but tossing some people overboard is not the solution to New York's fiscal problems.