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Opinion: Main Reason for Commack's $5.2M Budget Deficit Is Ever Increasing Salaries

The True Reason Why Our School Taxes Keep Increasing

Every year the issue of rising school taxes in Commack has been the subject of much concern for many residents. Promises of fiscal restraint from the school board and superintendent continue to go unfulfilled from year to year. 

While it is true that some increases in costs are attributable to unfunded state mandates and pension contributions, over which the school district has no control, it cannot be denied that the majority of increased costs are due to covering the contractual salary obligations to Teachers and other District Employees (Admin. Staff, etc.) (you can view the various contracts at http://www.commack.k12.ny.us/contracts/contracts.asp). 

Commack is fortunate to have such a wonderful group of dedicated teachers and school employees, but that is not the issue. I am sure that most people would agree that (good) teachers, just like cops and firefighters, etc., can never be paid enough money for the work that they do.

However, there’s no reason why excellence always has to mean expensive. As unfortunate as it may be, the amount that the district can afford to compensate its employees is based on its ability to pay, which is mostly governed by state aid and tax revenues. The reality is that what we would like to pay our Teachers and other School Employees is one thing, and what we can actually afford to pay them is quite another. It’s just simple economics. 

While changes in Albany must surely be made, those changes can only come through legislation. The same does not hold true at the local level, as the district and the taxpayers have the power to make the changes needed here in Commack. It is my intention that the information herein will serve to open some eyes and prove informative to anyone considering voting on the school budget, as well as for who should be elected to the Board [of Education] on May 15.  (I thank various Commack Patch posters who contributed some of the facts).

The $5.2M Budget Gap

In 2011-12, the school budget was approx. $166M. The school budget for 2012-2013 is estimated to be  approx. $171.2M. Thus, there is $5.2M gap that needs to be filled in order to keep the current level of services, classes, programs, teachers etc.

Under NY State law, the district’s ability to increase school taxes for this year is capped at 4.1 percent. Recognizing that a 4.1% tax increase would be way too much too pass a vote, the superintendent (Dr. [Donald] James ) and the school board is proposing a 2.6 % increase (which they claim will result, on average, in annual tax increase per homeowner of approx. $250 ). However, even with the 2.6% tax increase, there will still be roughly $4.5 million in cuts required. 

To try and fill this $4.5M shortfall, the board proposes to lay off roughly 40 teachers, one administrator, two secretaries and six custodians. However, the board acknowledges that those reductions will be insufficient, and that an additional $700,000 in cuts to programs will also be needed.  These numbers are not set in stone and could increase as there is still “the risk of other unforeseen circumstances” (which is code for the 2.6% is likely not a realistic number and may increase)  (see http://www.commack.k12.ny.us/budget12/budgetfacts.asp) and Apr. 5 handout

While people may contend it’s “only” a 2.6% increase, it must be remembered that every year there has been an increase in school taxes as evidenced by the fact that the school budget in 2000 was only $85 million and now in 2012 it is $171.2 million. Every year it is “only” a 2%, 3% or 4% increase, but over time all those increases add up. 

It’s basically killing the taxpayer slowly - a “death by a thousand cuts”.  The 2.6% does not include the increases in the Town taxes that will also likely be imposed on Commack taxpayers for other services (highway, police, etc). 

There is no doubt that the current $5.2M gap is partly due to increases in state pension contributions (for teachers (TRS) and other school employees (ERS)) which are largely dependent upon the health of the state pension funds. The economic climate has affected these pension funds and as the funds decrease it requires the district to increase their contributions to make up the difference. These rates are statutorily established by the state and are not under the district’s control. The mandated increase for 2012-13 is 11.84%. or $1.8 million for TRS and ERS. 

Nonetheless, the simple fact that the district tries not to highlight is that the bulk of the driving force behind the $5.2M gap is the cost of the increased salaries due to be paid under district approved employment contracts. It’s the pink elephant in the room that they hope everyone will ignore. That’s why the line-item budget given at the April 5 Budget Meeting, with all its codes and ambiguous labels, lays out data in a manner that is confusing and useless to the average citizen.

However, no amount of artful budget coding can obscure the fact that over the past 12 years the Commack school budget has more than doubled, and not because of unfunded mandates or increased enrollment, but rather due to the ever increasing salaries for teachers and other school employees. This year is no exception. Indeed, the Superintendent admitted as much when stated at the April 5 Budget Meeting that a district-wide pay freeze would save approx. $3.7M. 

The teachers’ contract was due to expire last June (2011), however back in April 2010, the board negotiated a modification of the teachers’ contract which extended the contract thru 2014. In doing so, the Board exchanged  a 3.8% raise the teachers were due to receive in 2011 and instead gave them a total raise of 7.85% thru 2014 (2% 2010, 1% 2011, 2% 2012 and 2.85% 2013 – See contract and amendment). 

However, it is important to realize that these raises are in addition to the approx. 3% salary increases each teacher receives each year based on their seniority (i.e. “Step Increases”). See e.g. Appendix B2, B3 of Teachers Contract. 

Accordingly, the salary increases Teachers received actually result in total increases of 5 percent in 2010, 4 percent in 2011, 5 percent in 2012 and 5.83 percent in 2013. Furthermore, these figures do not include the increases teachers receive for various other things, such as longevity, advanced degrees, coaching and extra-curricular activities. You can see how much certain teachers/employees make at http://seethroughny.net/ (click “payrolls” then “schools” then enter a name). I am certain you will be surprised, and for mostly working approximately 180 days a year.

The administrative staff contract calls for 5 years of 3.5 percent raises in addition to 21 holidays. Although I will not mention names, we now have secretaries making over $100,000. (see Admin. Contract). Case in point, at least one secretary made $102,000 in 2010, others over $80,000. The assistant superintendent of Pupil Personnel Services earned $179,000 last year and her assistant earned almost $150,000 (I note some District Employee contracts are expired or up for renewal this year).

It would simply take too long to get into an analysis of every contract, but I urge everyone to review them. It should suffice to say that in 2010-11, there were 1,256 people employed by the district of, which 366 made more than $100,000.

If you eliminate the part-timers (presumably those making less than $28,000), approximately 40.76% of all District Employees made more than 100,000. Last year, $0.74 cents of every tax dollar in the school budget went to pay for employee salaries and benefits. This year will be similar. Notably, enrollment is expected to decrease, just as it did from 7,830 students in 2009 to 7,509 in 2011.

To add insult to injury, last year the board voted to extend Superintendent James’ contract through 2016 and in doing so gave him a $17,000 raise (approximately 7%) which increased his salary to approximately $274,000. Why was such a raise warranted in this economic environment? 

In addition, he gets 40 days vacation, 12 federal and 18 school holidays.  So in essence Superintendent James is off 194 days a year (104 weekend days plus 30 holiday plus 40 vacation days plus 15 sick days and 5 personal days (a total of 194 days). Not to mention he also receives, among other things, a $2,500 vision allowance, an $8,000 vehicle allowance, and $10,000 payment for his life insurance policy (of which he is the owner of and exclusively can name the beneficiary). The kicker is the extension through 2016 guarantees raises equal to the Consumer Price Index (CPI) + .5 % with a minimum of 3% and max 6% on his $274,000 salary, not including benefits.

Although Superintendent James has “graciously” offered to freeze his salary this year, his gesture is lame considering he already received a $17,000 increase last year. While some may view $17,000 as a trivial amount in view of the $5.2M deficit, that is not the issue. The issue is fiscal responsibility and why the board is awarding such generous raises during these down economic times.  Superintendent James picked our pockets and the board, who is supposed to be looking out for all our interests, let him do it. They should be ashamed.    

To put all this info. into perspective the current rate of inflation as of March 2012 is 2.9 percent. So maybe you think that puts a 2.6% tax increase in proportion since our school district is proposing a budget that is less than the rate of inflation?

Not so fast. That argument doesn’t hold when you look at the previous three years when increases were above the rate of inflation. In 2009, the CPI actually went down 0.4% (but the budget/salaries increased that year too). The fact of the matter is that the percentage increase in the total budget versus last year (approx. +3.2%) is well above the 2.9% rate of inflation.  In fact, it has been that way for more than 12 years.

 The growth in the Commack School District’s spending has consistently outpaced the rate of inflation, that’s a fact, just as it is that the increases have been primarily due to the rising cost of District salaries. (CPI for 2000 = 3.4%,  2001 = 2.8%,  2002 = 1.6%, 2003 = 2.3, 2004 = 2.7, 2005 = 3.4, 2006 = 3.2%, 2007 = 2.8%, 2008 = 3.8%, 2009 = -0.4%, 2010 = 1.6%, 2011 = 3.2 %.) 

Disturbingly, there does not appear to be any indication in the minutes from the school board meetings posted on the district website of how each board member voted on either the teacher’s or superintendent’s amended contracts (or anything else). This cannot be permitted to continue and must be changed. The taxpayers have a right to know how their elected school board officials are voting on every issue. Otherwise, how can taxpayers assess whether a board member should be replaced or kept in office? There must be transparency and accountability for the Board’s actions and the taxpayer’s must insist on it.  In my opinion, the current Board has failed this community and new members need to be elected. 

It is this kind of financial mismanagement that has resulted in our school taxes increasing every year. But as you see, the money doesn’t go to the kids. It just goes to cover ever increasing salaries. It is one thing if increases are needed because the school needs equipment, books or computers, etc... but it’s quite another to repeatedly require tax increases so that the district can award teachers and school employees higher raises and more benefits every year. 

Take a look at the yellow highlighted area in the memo linked http://www.nystrs.org/main/admbull/bull2012-1.pdf. It basically advises that this year’s low increase from 11.11% to 11.84% in the estimated employer contribution rate to the teachers’ pension system is an anomaly and that the ECR will likely increase.  Now, if you are the board or superintendent and you know that upward pressure will continue to be applied to your costs for the foreseeable future, wouldn’t you act proactively to offset those known increases?

Unfortunately, that never happens here and the district is continually shortsighted in its fiscal planning. Also check out page nine of this presentation and take a look at where Suffolk lands, a distinction we could do without. 

The Budget Gap Can Be Closed Without Cuts to Teachers/Services

Every year the district engages in scare tactics by claiming “a failing budget will hurt our kids by increasing class sizes and depriving them of programs etc.”  And every year the Commack taxpayers' fall for it. That is why, as the foard acknowledged at the April 5 Budget Meeting, there has never been a year where the school budget has not passed, and there has never been a year when teachers and other school employees have not received raises. 

The district’s claims however are disingenuous, because the truth is that every year the budget passes and yet every year classes still increase and programs still get cut. This is because the tax dollars from the increased budget mainly go to cover the annual increases in teachers and district employees’ salaries and benefits. These continued increases are unaffordable and cannot be sustained. The days of entitlement must come to an end.  

Instead of raising taxes, having layoffs and cutting kids’ programs the teachers and employees should be working with the board on ways to cut back on spending in order to live within the budget the District has to work with. As noted above, a District wide pay freeze would save approx. $3.7M.  See also http://thehuntingtonian.com/2012/03/19/commack-superintendent-announces-wage-freeze/ (“according to figures provided at the budget presentation on March 8, a district-wide, one-year wage freeze could save close to $4 million”). 

There are taxpayers in Commack who are struggling because they have lost their jobs and have not had raises in years. Why should the teachers and other school employees in Commack be immune from the hard reality of the current economy?  Other school districts throughout Long Island have agreed to wage freezes. On April 10, the Smithtown School District ratified their teachers’ contract, after nearly 2 years, which calls for 0% salary increases for 2010-11 and 2011-12 (albeit they will still receive their longevity steps, the steps are reduced by half for 2012-13 and 2013-14)

A Newsday article dated 1/9/12 stated “Great Neck school district teachers will see a partial pay freeze for the second time in three school years -- taking their place among peers in at least 20 other local districts who have agreed to salary freezes in recent years.”

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that if we can save $3.7 million with a pay freeze then all that remains of the $5.2 million gap is approximately $1.5 milion, which surely could be filled without much effort.  Certainly a big portion, if not most of it, could be filled by consolidation or, if necessary, with a small cut in salaries, or a some combination.  A 1% cut in a salary of $100,000 equates to $1,000 a year or $83 per month before taxes. The after tax amount likely equates to less than a $50 month decrease in take home pay. For those who make less than $100,00, the decrease is even less.

Surely a small price to pay considering that accomplishing such a savings could likely: 

(1) remove any necessity for a school tax increase

(2) save all the employees and teachers that were slated to be fired (except those being let go due to reduced enrollment), and

(3) save all classes and programs from being cut under the budget proposed by the Board and Superintendent.

The board and superintendent must persuade the teachers and employees to agree to revise their contracts. They must be reminded that the taxpayers of Commack have been more than generous in repeatedly approving all prior budgets, and in doing so approving every raise they have been given, even over the past few years of economic decline.  It is now time for them to give back to the Commack Community and agree to do what needs to be done, not only to save their own colleagues’ jobs - but because to do so would be in the best interest of all our children who they repeatedly claim are their first priority. 

The message from their refusal will be that their real interest is only in themselves, even if it’s at the expense of our children and other Teachers and School Employees. In such an event, the board and superintendent must then ensure that their refusal is remembered when the time comes to negotiate their next contract.

In closing, I am not advising anyone how to vote on the school budget. That is their choice. I only urge people to learn the facts before doing so. Those who vote yes on the budget based on the fallacy that voting no “will not change things” are sadly mistaken. If we have learned anything from the last 12+ years shows it’s that voting “Yes” only perpetuates the status quo, as taxes and spending have kept rising and the District continued to make little if no effort to be more fiscally prudent. When was the last time you saw meaningful changes made in the absence of people demanding it? The answer is never. Therefore, the only budget I will vote for this year is one that contains an across the board wage freeze and is as close to a 0% tax increase as fiscally possible. Anything less is unacceptable.

Regardless, of what happens this year, more of Commack’s taxpayers must become involved if they want to effectuate change.  They must insist on the superintendent and board being more fiscally prudent with their tax dollars and hold them responsible at the voting booth if they fail to listen. If they don’t, then complaining about it will continue to be an exercise in futility and the taxpayers themselves will have to share the blame when school taxes continue to increase. 

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Michael April 25, 2012 at 01:38 AM
Maybe so Sara, but when 74% of your costs are locked in before you even start the budgeting process, that doesnt leave you much else to "Zero Base Budget." Its a bood buzzword and gimmick though.
driver April 25, 2012 at 02:11 PM
40 vacation days for Dr. James will end up costing us big bucks when he leaves and gets paid lump sum for "unused" vacation days. No one in the private sector gets to carry so many days - use them or lose them - is the policy in most companys. Why do you think Dr. Feldman and Dr. Hunderfund got so much and this counts to their pension!
Michael April 25, 2012 at 02:38 PM
Well driver, if you have a problem with the overinflated pensions, you will love knowing that the Super's contract calls for the contribution by the District of 7% of his salary on an annual basis to a 403b account. That probably eats up the equivalent of three average size homes school tax payments. But who can put a price on excellence, right?
Re April 26, 2012 at 10:04 PM
Sara, Do not let the school board or the union know abut this old colonial benefit They might want to negotiate a room and board stipend in the next contract.
John Gruber May 07, 2012 at 05:04 PM
I love it how those who are against running a bigger deficit are labeled "anti-teacher", complete stupidity

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