Tomorrow is election day and the chance for Commack residents to vote on the proposed school budget and the candidates running for the school board (the “Board”). It is my sincere hope that have been informative and have provided people with facts to help them make an informed and intelligent decision before voting.
It is imperative that everyone exercise their right to vote tomorrow and have their voice heard. As noted by Newsday reporter John Hildebrand, “fewer than 15 percent of registered voters participate in school elections generally. In some districts, less than 100 votes can decide the outcome of more than $100 million in spending. Voters have never had as much leverage over school spending as they will enjoy in Tuesday's elections.”
I for one believe changes are needed here in Commack because the numbers show that the district has been fiscally irresponsible. The district’s spending is indefensible considering the tough economic times of the past several years. The facts show that from 2006 to date, during which a majority of the Board has been in office, the Board approved budget increases totaling nearly 31.6% and tax levy increases totaling approx. 27.4%. Teachers’ salaries alone have increased over 40% (not including benefits), which works out to nearly 49% when compounded. During this same period inflation rose only a total of approx. 16% and school enrollment actually decreased -1.4%. As a result, the past six years has seen Commack’s school budget increase at almost twice the rate of inflation. This has led to district’s cost to educate each student to rise nearly 37% from $17,303 in 2006/07 to $23,660 for 2012/13.
Although the public cannot vote on school district employee contracts, it is important to realize the public indirectly does so when they vote on school budgets – as those budgets pay for the contract raises. Commack’s School District instructional salaries alone now make up 77% of the Budget (not incl. benefits) and the it has 32 administrators earning over $123,000.
The contract extension the Board gave Superintendent James last year, after only just one year on the job, provided him with a 6.5% raise ($17,000) and 10 extra vacation days and three “other holidays” (boosting his total vacation days to 40, of which he can request up to 30 to be paid in cash each year). The extra days he was awarded was plainly a means of providing him an indirect monetary benefit. 1/220th of Dr. James’ salary is $1,243.63, so the 10 vacation days are worth $12,436.30 and 3 more holidays are worth $3,730.89.
This year the school district could have saved $3.7 million of the $5.2 million budget gap with a district wide pay freeze. However, while other district employees have agreed to a freeze, so far the teacher’s union has apparently refused to make any such concession, even though numerous other teacher unions throughout Long Island have done so, including the Smithtown teachers’ contract and Northport.
Indeed, “Brentwood officials said many planned cuts may be avoided if employees agree to lower compensation. Many local teacher unions already have taken that step. Regional union representatives said newly negotiated raises average 1 to 1.5 percent a year, compared with 3 or 3.5 percent a few years ago. Representatives add that annual "step" increases built into pay schedules are being canceled or postponed in many cases.”
Here in Commack, salary concessions would have likely: (1) remove any necessity for a school tax increase;(2) saved all the employees and teachers that were slated to be fired (except those being let go due to reduced enrollment); and (3) saved all classes and programs from being cut under the proposed budget. In essence, the District is asking the community to support a budget that cuts kids’ classes, programs and teachers, so it can afford to pay the higher salaries which the Board approved. I find it hard to fathom that any reasonable person could not take issue with this.
I also find it hard to understand how the Commack PTA can support the proposed budget considering the budget is taking programs, clubs and teachers away from our children. Isn’t the PTA supposed to be looking out for the best interest of our children? Yet has the PTA ever stood up against and questioned the district’s fiscal irresponsibility and wasteful spending? Has the PTA ever recommended the community vote NO to any proposed budget? The answer is No. Instead, they have continuously facilitated the status quo.
The PTA’s complicity is evidenced by the e-mail blast that the PTA sent out yesterday telling the community to vote for the budget and also implying the community should not to elect Mr. Fusco to the Board because he’s opposes the budget. The PTA disingenuously fails to explain that Mr. Fusco stated that he could not support the budget because it gives raises to staff while cutting programs for children. Is that unreasonable? Shouldn’t the PTA’s position be the same? Why is the PTA not questioning Ms. Guber’s record over the past 6 years? What has she done to warrant a third 3-year term? How can the PTA urge people to vote for Ms. Guber when she believes it's better to keep overpaying employees rather than putting the money towards classes and programs? The PTA’s e-mail is also entirely improper and unethical, as the PTA is not permitted to endorse any Board candidates. By doing so the PTA had now impugned their own credibility and shown their true colors insofar as they are not acting independently from the District, but are plainly nothing more than an extension of it.
The PTA has also adopted the same scare tactics the district uses, i.e., if the budget is not approved then the kids will suffer because then there will be more cuts. So now the PTA has chosen to point the same proverbial gun to our kids’ heads that the District has repeatedly used every year to get the budget passed. Yet, every year we are back in the same place facing the same situation. How many times are we going to be held hostage by this hollow argument that perpetuates the never ending cycle of wasteful spending that always leads to budget increases, higher taxes, program cuts and teacher layoffs? A defeat of the budget on May 15 will not “decimate our schools” or put Commack on austerity. To the contrary, it will create an opportunity, before a second vote is held, for more discussion and negotiations with the unions, who will then be constrained to make concessions or see more of its members lose their jobs. The plain truth is that the district employees have it within their power to avoid the consequences of an austerity budget, but will only be compelled to do so if the budget fails.
The voices of the Commack community need to be heard. Sadly, last year only 4,500 eligible voters turned out of over 20,000. This year we should not let 4,500 people decide the fate of over 20,000. If you have no problem with the past six-years’ 32% increase in the school budget, 27% increase in property taxes, and the fiscally irresponsible way the district awards salaries to its employees at the expense of making cuts to classes, programs, and teachers, then go ahead and vote for the budget and Ms. Guber.
If you have had enough of these unjustified increases and wasteful spending of your tax dollars and want to see: (1) our children be put first; (2) a stop to student program cuts; (3) better education for students; (4) common sense fiscal responsibility; (5) more transparency; (6) school district costs controlled; and (7) a stop to rising school property taxes; then Vote for Change by voting No to the budget and Yes to Dan Fusco.