Laura Pandelakis'  November 18, 2008 speach to the  Conservative Party  

Good evening.  I would like to thank the conservative party for sponsoring this panel discussion on Long Island school property tax reform.  My view on the topic is shaped by over thirty years as a teacher and administrator and I along with 84% of Long Islanders believe that the major local problem facing us is spiraling, out of control school taxes.  To really understand the property tax crisis, it needs a face. We all have family, friends and neighbors who have left Long Island leaving a big void in our lives and fraying the fabric of our communities.  My particular face is an elegant woman who showed up for a tax cap meeting at my home. After years of hard work, she had retired and thought she would live out her years in the home that she had inherited from her family. 

 Over the years as school taxes increased relentlessly, twice the annual inflation rate, she was assured by the school board and the local newspaper that it was necessary “for the children” She was forced to take a reverse mortgage on the family home.  Eventually, she was forced to take a part time job even though she had some health problems.  I can only imagine her fear when she got the 2008-2009 school levy tax statement with increases averaging 7% and next year is shaping up to be worse since State aid will increase, yes increase, by only 5% instead of the usual 8% to 10%, The taxpayer, of course, will be expected to make up the difference. Her story is repeated throughout Long Island by others who, in retrospect, made the wrong decision to simply stay in their homes. Their plight and the plight of many New Yorkers is a direct result of the insatiable demands of the educational establishment, specifically the unions and their allies on school boards and in the State legislature who acquiesce to union demands, all the while, hiding behind “the children”.

 School boards bowing to union demands have given away the farm or in our case, our homes.   Between 1998 and 2006, property tax levies increased 57%, more than double the rate of inflation. Cost per student is approximately $23,000 in Nassau, and $21,000 in Suffolk.  On average 75% of the cost is for salaries and benefits. The median Long Island teacher’s salary is about $85,000 for classroom duties plus thousands more for non-classroom duties. By most standards, they earn a good salary.  Teacher and often administrator benefits include health care for life and pensions that often equal take home pay when you factor out state taxes, social security taxes and union dues.

 In an effort to improve working conditions for staff and increase their own coffers with dues that translate into political power, the educational establishment is now demanding smaller and therefore more expensive classes, even though the research demonstrates minimal or no benefit in classes that range between 17 and 34 students.  Clearly, it is better to have 25 or more students in a class with an intelligent, motivated inspired teacher than to have 16 students in a class with an incompetent, unmotivated uninspired teacher. Nevertheless, over the last decade, school staffing increased 21% with enrollment up only 5%. 

 The teacher’s contract becomes the baseline for the administrators contract.  Long Island is home to the $300,000 a year superintendent.  It should be noted that his salary determines his pension. Chancellor Klein who supervises the entire NYC school system does not make as much as some of our Superintendents.

                Our school boards have extended these salaries and benefits in spite of the fact that for every teaching position, particularly on the elementary level, there are hundreds upon hundreds of New York State certified applicants. The school board argument that we must pay for excellence is absolutely bogus.  In fact, unions and school boards do not demand excellence.  Increases in salaries and benefits are extended regardless of excellence, regardless of merit, so that the inspired, intelligent hard working teacher is not rewarded and the uninspired and incompetent teacher is not penalized.  In fact, the incompetent is often rewarded since he or she cannot be trusted with a serious curriculum and is often assigned to teach less rigorous courses. 

 The school board attempt to justify spending by citing high regents scores is also bogus.  Regents’ examinations have been dumbed down to the extent that they are simply basic competency tests.  They are no longer a test of academic excellence.  We have to look to the gold standard of tests, the National Assessment of Educational Progress for meaningful academic standards. We find that in spite of spending 48% above the national average on education, NYS ranks in the middle of fifty states.   NYS ranked 45 our of 50 in mean SAT scores.  It appears our very expensive schools have produced very poor results.  These telling results may be behind attempts by some in the educational establishment to do away with testing.  If the scores don’t support the expense, do away with the scores.  Do away with accountability, altogether.

School boards have been aided and abetted by our State Legislators.   The teacher’s union is the number one contributor to NYS legislative campaigns and Albany has responded with union friendly legislation.

 For example;   It take two votes to vote down a school budget but only one vote to pass it.

For example;  Contingency budgets are calculated so that they are often as high and sometimes even higher than the proposed school budget

For example;  Lifetime tenure for the most incompetent teacher is virtually guaranteed

For example;  The Triborough Amendment to the Taylor law continues automatic salary increases and benefits throughout contract negotiations.

 This union friendly legislation has undermined the democratic process to the extent that in the 2007 school budget vote, $10 billion in school spending was passed by 3% of registered voters on Long Island.  The electorate saw no point in showing up with the deck stacked against them.

So how have Long Islanders reacted to the school tax crisis?  They have left.  One out of three of our young people said they intend to leave Long Island for low tax states that offer them more opportunity.  They are followed by seniors with their pensions and businesses that see no point opening or expanding in a hostile environment.  If it were not for newly arrived immigrants, New York would have a declining population but even they may be leaving as the jobs dry up.

 What can be done about this crisis?  A grass roots organization was formed in 2005.  LIFER, Long Islanders for Educational Reform, began as an association of local community activists and is now a statewide organization with over 12,000 people receiving our message.  The message got to Governor Paterson and he supported the appointment of Tom Suozzi to chair a committee to investigate the tax crisis. After numerous meetings throughout the State, the committee developed a reasonable, rationale three-prong plan to address the issue. 

First, a school tax cap of 4% or 120% of the consumer price index, which ever is less.  Essentially, it means your school taxes cannot increase by more that 4% or 120% of the CPI annually unless there is an increase in enrollment.   It is simple and clear and goes to the root of the problem, which is out of control school spending.   The country is in recession and people are forced to cut their spending.  A 4% or 120% CPI increase is very generous in a climate where people are losing their jobs and home.  The unions of course are against it.  They want more than 4% increases and have been fighting this reasonable tax cap that Lifer believes is the only viable path to control property taxes

 The Suozzi committee’s second proposal is a circuit breaker, which would replace the Star Program.  It is a variation of an income tax but would do nothing to stop out of control spending.  The NYS Assembly Bill 11838 is an example of such a circuit breaker. Paragraph one states that taxpayers with incomes at or below $90,000 would be eligible for a refund of 25% of the amount that exceeds 5% if their income. Translation, if you earn $90,000 a year and your school taxes are $8,000 you would save $875 annually on your school taxes.  However, if your income increases or more likely, school boards continue to cave into union demands and increase spending, you would save less and less.  Translation, if your income increases to $100,000 and school taxes increase to $9,000 your saving would be $600.  The educational establishment supports a circuit breaker.

The commission’s third proposal is mandate relief for school boards that complain school taxes are too high because of unfunded State mandates.  This argument apparently ignores the fact that school boards determine salaries and most benefits which account for approximately 75% of school taxes. In any case, mandate relief does nothing to stop out of control spending.  It simply gives school boards more money to spend. The educational establishment supports mandate relief.

 The educational establishment is promoting the circuit breaker and mandate relief and unfortunately, some of us at LIFER have come to the sad reality that any so called reform promoted by the educational establishment will only add to our tax burden.  That being said, Lifer is not opposed to a circuit breaker or mandate relief but believes that neither proposal would be effective unless and until there is a tax cap that would stop spending.  A tax cap has successfully turned Taxachusettes into Massachusetts and we can do the same here.

The unions and their supporters will attack the Governor and tax cap friendly legislators.  We can expect the usual TV and radio ads lamenting the loss of funds” for the children”. Last year, my favorite ad was a grandmotherly type who said that even though times were tough, she was going to support “the children” and so she will vote yes for more taxes.  This type of rhetoric has swayed the gullible and uninformed to the extent that we find ourselves in a situation where our homes are declining in value as our taxes continue to rise.  So now it the time to get behind Governor Paterson and tell our legislators that you support efforts that defend our homes, our families and yes, our children’s future against the insatiable demands of the educational establishment.  Do it as if your future depended on it.  Actually, it does.