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Cuomo on Education – Race to Efficiency

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

WNYC’s transportation guru Andrea Bernstein has already commented on the true brevity of Andrew Cuomo’s “New NY Agenda” despite the fact that it takes up about 250 pages. The wide margins and generous spacing do, indeed, resemble a high school student’s creative attempts to fulfill a term paper requirement.

 

The three short pages devoted to education efficiency note that school aid has increased at twice the rate of inflation since 2003-04 and argue that simply can’t continue. Cuomo has therefore proposed ways to rein in the costs by:

1) Revisiting whether districts should be reimbursed for things such as building aid and school construction,
2) Eliminating costly mandates and reducing personnel costs,
3) Encouraging small school districts to pool their resources and their buying power,
4) Capping property taxes.

The would-be Democratic nominee estimates that cutting the growth rate of district personnel costs in half would save them “approximately $1 billion dollars annually, while freezing personnel costs would generate approximately $2 billion dollars in savings from projected growth rates.” And he says these savings would help alleviate local property taxes.

I called Tim Kremer, Executive Director of the New York State School Boards Association, to get his take on these proposals.

First of all, he worries that setting a 2 percent property tax cap would be the (near) equivalent of California’s infamous Proposition 13.

He noted that Gov. David Paterson embraced a recommended 4 percent cap before the recession killed that idea. “You start talking about a tax levy cap of 2 percent and you won’t be allowing for inflation adjustments,” he said. “We have adjustments for energy, health care, special education, pension, things we have no control over. All of a sudden you get capped at 2 percent. The state had better pick it up or the economy better be running at high rate… If not, he’ll be causing school districts to dip into their reserves and lay people off.”

Kremer was more supportive of Cuomo’s other ideas. He said state budget officials have often been critical of a reimbursement approach to building new schools, for example, suggesting it would make more sense to force districts to work within a more limited budget.

As for reforming unfunded mandates, Kremer called it “one of those motherhood and apple pie positions of local school districts who say so much of our costs are directed at things Albany or Washington requires us to do.” For example, he noted that New York State has extra special education requirements that go well beyond federal law. He also mentioned the Wicks law, which requires school districts to hire four different contractors for projects that cost over a certain amount. “There’s an example where costs are getting driven up,” Kremer says.

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