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Article Date: 03/24/2008
Long Island has many top paid school managers
BY JOHN HILDEBRAND | john.hildebrand@newsday.com

Long Island is home to one of the heaviest concentrations of highly paid school administrators in the state: more than 2,000 superintendents, deputies, associates, assistants and other managers earning more than $153,000 in average salaries and benefits.

This concentration represents 52 percent of the 4,014 highly compensated administrators in the state's nonurban school districts, even though the Island enrolls only 29 percent of students in nonurban districts. Figures are from state Education Department records listing all school administrators earning $110,000 and up in nonurban districts.

Included on the list are 11 local school superintendents whose salaries all top the $250,000 a year paid to New York City schools Chancellor Joel Klein, who runs a system of 975,000 students.

In contrast, none of the Island's 11 highest-paid superintendents is responsible for more than 11,000 students. Klein's system is one of five urban districts excluded from the state's salary list.

Though concentrated in a small geographic area, the Island's school administrations are divided organizationally into 124 independent districts out of nearly 700 statewide -- a form of suburban Balkanization that is attracting increased scrutiny from elected officials.

Three weeks ago, a Suffolk Legislature commission called for a more streamlined approach to school management to eliminate what it called "the plethora of duplicative, often costly positions."

A week later, Nassau County Executive Thomas Suozzi advocated a countywide "office of shared school services," with an eye toward saving money and curbing property taxes through economies of scale.

Excessive, or appropriate?

In defending current administrative costs, Island school officials note that their districts rank among the highest achieving in the United States, that regional living costs are high, and that their salaries are proportionate to those of local teachers who also are among the nation's best paid.

"There's a lot of responsibility that comes with running schools," said James Parla, Island Trees superintendent and the president of the Nassau County Council of School Superintendents, who added that his colleagues face increasing requirements in the form of state and federal testing standards. "The job's a lot more challenging now."

Even so, growing concentrations of school administrators are drawing the ire of local taxpayers, as well as their elected representatives. "You know, it's ridiculous!" said Gary Besemer, a Brightwaters resident and retired postal worker who began checking administrative rolls in his own Bay Shore school district, after his property taxes had risen to what he considered an uncomfortable level.

State records show that Bay Shore is among the best-staffed districts in western Suffolk County in terms of the ratio of students to administrators. The 5,702-student district employs 33 highly compensated managers, including Superintendent Evelyn Blose Holman, whose listed salary of $275,500 is the Island's fifth highest.

Many administrators - Also included are an assistant to the superintendent, an executive director, two assistant superintendents, seven principals, seven assistant principals and 10 directors.

"What do all these administrators do?" Besemer asked, echoing a question often raised by other members of Long Islanders for Educational Reform, a regional taxpayer group where he is active. "It's insanity!"

Holman did not respond to Newsday's request for comment.

A Newsday analysis finds that the Island's educational system is marred by growing administrative overhead and considerable duplication of effort.

Some examples:

Across the Island, school administrative staffs have grown steadily over the past five years in proportion to the number of students enrolled. Last school year, the latest for which data is available, the regional ratio was one administrator for every 169 students, compared with one administrator for every 189 students in 2002-03. Regional enrollments leveled off during this period.

A total of 113 officials were engaged in school business management last year on the Island, with responsibility for $8.6 billion in spending. Meanwhile, New York City's school system made do with roughly the same number of business officials -- 116 -- while spending $17 billion, nearly twice as much.

Contrasts were even starker in terms of the number of school officials assigned to managing state and federal financial aid. Forty-six administrators were listed as working in this field on the Island, which receives about $2.9 billion in state and federal dollars. Meanwhile, New York City assigned 37 administrators to this field, with responsibility for $8.8 billion.

In other areas of school management, too, relatively large numbers of highly paid administrators work in the Island's district offices. Island schools employ 26 percent of all deputy and associate school superintendents working statewide, and nearly 33 percent of all assistant superintendents, while enrolling only 17 percent of students. Figures are for both urban and nonurban schools.

School representatives insist, however, that they already have done much on their own to achieve economies of scale. They point to the fact that most districts obtain certain back-office services such as payroll through regional BOCES agencies, while also purchasing goods and services at low-bid prices from state- approved vendors.

Moreover, Parla and other regional school leaders have expressed their willingness to cooperate with Suozzi in looking for further ways to consolidate business operations. Many, indeed, say they see potential for substantial savings in such areas as auditing, bus transportation, legal services and high-volume printing.

William Johnson, superintendent of Rockville Centre schools and a former president of the State Council of School Superintendents, said he is now discussing the possibility of joint printing operations with five other districts and would welcome Nassau County's help on other cooperative ventures.

"If the county can do some of this, we should jump at the opportunity," he said. Staff writer Michael R. Ebert contributed to this story.

Article Date: 03/14/2008
School Tax Relief Sought Hearing Held by NYS Commission
On Property Tax Relief

By Joe Rizza
The New York State Commission on Property Tax Relief, formed by Governor Eliot Spitzer and chaired by Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi, held a hearing in Hauppauge last Wednesday. Those who addressed the commission, which was created to seek ways to alleviate the property tax burden on state residents, expressed their feelings that property taxes, specifically how they relate to the funding of Long Island school districts, are overburdening residents of Long Island and some sort of tax relief is essential to the future of Nassau and Suffolk Counties. Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi (2nd left) is the chairman on a commission that seeks to get a handle on high property taxes.
Suozzi called property taxes an "unsustainable problem" in New York State. "This problem exists in every community. Local taxes in New York State are the highest in the nation, 79 percent above the national average," he said.
Many residents have felt the impact of the high property taxes that are used to fund school districts on Long Island and some feel Nassau and Suffolk have reached their breaking points and are urging lawmakers to make changes that will enable residents to stay in their homes and young people to afford to live on Long Island.
"There is much emotional attachment on the part of the education establishment to maintain the status quo. However, this is not a sustainable course," said one Nassau taxpayer, Anita McDougall of Oyster Bay.
Spitzer's appointed commission will explore ways to possibly put a cap on school taxes, something some feel is a good idea. Andrea Vecchio, a member of East Islip TaxPAC, said she has seen property taxes increase in her district by 47 percent in five years. She urged the commission to consider a 4 percent cap or a cap tied to the rate of inflation, whichever is lower, on school taxes. "The system is broken. The never ending quest for more money to pay higher salaries and benefits has been a corrupting influence in too many districts," she said. "Homeowner property taxes cannot keep rising without any limit. School districts cannot keep spending to levels that are forcing families off the Island and out of the state."
With salaries and benefits of school district employees making up approximately 80 percent of school district budgets, some are urging the commission to take a look at school district administrator and teacher salaries and benefits. Superintendent of schools for the Sachem Central School District, Dr. Charles Murphy, who, according to data from the State Education Department, had a salary of $205,000 in 2006-2007 testified that teachers in that school district see, on average, a 6 percent raise each year.
With salaries and benefits rising at a rate greater that some salaries in the private sector, some may wonder if Long Island will be a sustainable place to live.
Harvey Levinson, chairman of Nassau County Board of Assessors, points out that an average home in Farmingdale with a home value of $400,000 paid $5,088 in school taxes for 2007-2008 while one in Levittown with a home value of $424,000 paid $6,392 and one in Westbury with a home value of $530,000 paid $7,092.
"The assessed value of a home is not an indicator of a family's ability to pay school taxes. We have to explore alternatives to providing school district funding to help families on Long Island who find themselves house rich and income poor and struggle to pay their property taxes," said Levinson.
The county assessor is proposing to eliminate the residential portion of the school property tax and replace it with an income tax to be paid by owners of one, two and three-family homes, condominiums and co-ops as well as renters. Under Levinson's proposal, all commercial and utility properties including apartment buildings with four or more units and non-residents would continue to pay property taxes.
There are other proposals to stop the tide of escalating school spending. New York State Senator Dean Skelos had mentioned a plan in which newly hired teachers would immediately become state employees with the State of New York assuming contractual obligations. This plan also is favored by economist Marty Cantor of Dowling College, who suggested having the state negotiate union contracts for four to six regions in the state. Cantor believes taking labor negotiations out of the hands of school boards would make school budgets easier for school boards to manage.
E.J. McMahon, senior fellow for tax and budgetary studies at Manhattan Institute, advocated a cap similar to one used in Massachusetts, which caps the tax levy at 2.5 percent of the market value and growth in the tax levy at 2.5 percent from the previous year. But, said McMahon, "While a comprehensive tax cap needs to be recognized as a major step forward for taxpayers, it's only a first step."
With increases in salaries and benefits dictated by contracts between unions and school boards, a concern of a tax cap could be that school board's would be capping the amounts of the budget that go for student extra-curricular activities and equipment.
"By capping school spending with no regard to inflationary costs such healthcare, heating oil, diesel fuel and construction costs and retirement benefits, the pinch is often felt in educational programs and we would have to truncate these programs as well as extra-curricular activities, cut staff and services and perhaps review our entire special education population to see where savings could be made," said Marty Kaye, a member of the West Hempstead School Board.
School boards, when formulating a budget, must deal with increasing costs such for those items such as employee healthcare benefits, pension contributions and state and federal mandates. "If we do not control costs that are mandated upon us, it makes it extremely difficult, at budget time, to do property job," Kaye said. "Any solution to spiraling property taxes must to address some of the root causes."
Some suggest that, in order to put the brakes on escalating school taxes, lawmakers must take a look at the laws that govern collective bargaining between unions and school boards. "I think that the most important area to address in terms of school expenses is personnel expenses," said McMahon. "You basically have these individual school districts negotiating with units of a powerful statewide cartel that is focused like a laser on its own self-interests...Districts need help with that."
"The commission needs to take a close look at all the collective bargaining agreements between schools and their labor groups. Many districts have items in their contracts that are virtually impossible to negotiate out. It would make it very difficult for these districts to stay under the cap," said Dr. Murphy.
One organization, Long Islanders for Educational Reform, believes that the Triboro Amendment to the Taylor Law has to be repealed when it comes to school districts. The amendment allows a contract between a bargaining unit such as a teacher's union and a school district to remain in effect until a new contract is signed. "The intention was to reduce school strikes. But now districts are put in very challenging positions during negotiations. By doing nothing, some unions are better off just staying put," said Dr. Murphy.
"We need to be able repeal that particular portion of the Taylor Law because it will give us the ability to not pay contractual benefits in non-negotiated years of a contract. It gives the union an advantage in terms of bargaining," said Kaye.
The commission is expected to make its interim report no later than May 15 and its final report no later than Dec. 1.