Assemblyman George Latimer brought the school budget discussion straight to the students today at Port Chester middle school and high school, acknowledging that this is not foremost on their young minds. “It’s not talking about Jeremy Lin,” he told them. “It’s a little harder, it’s less cool, but it’s important.”
The students needed no convincing, it turned out. A Q&A with the state lawmaker ventured freely into the challenge of unfunded mandates, the needs of immigrant students and the injustice of an education system funded mainly by property tax, and therefore riddled with inequities.
Latimer made references to the wealth of neighboring Rye as he argued for more state aid to high-need districts like Port Chester. “To have the same opportunities – that’s what’s at stake here,” he said. District and state representatives have encouraged a grass-roots show of support for state aid that would alleviate cuts being contemplated to meet the new state tax cap.
Students questioned why budget cuts always seem to threaten programs they care about most – sports, for example, and the renowned marching band. That prompted a discussion over mandated vs. discretionary expenses.
Senior Elizabeth Vincento, who plays clarinet in the band and is vice president of the student senate, said she can’t imagine school without such programs and the socializing they provide.
“The school bond wouldn’t be there as much, without everyone getting together and interacting,” agreed Chris Mott, the student senate president. Chris said the budget conversation reminded him of what it will mean to become an eligible voter when he turns 18 in July.
The option of exceeding the 2 percent tax levy cap through a 60 percent override by the public didn’t even come up in the discussion. Chris and Elizabeth were not surprised, noting the local voting dynamic. “You’re pushing the envelope. There’s only so much you can do,” Elizabeth said.
“In Port Chester there’s a lot of people who can’t vote, and a lot of people who can vote (tend to) vote the opposite way of what you want them to,” Chris said. “A lot of the old people with no kids, they’re not going to vote to pass this. They don’t want the increase in taxes.”
“Maybe if we have a town meeting,” he added. “I don’t know if that’s even in the cards. A town meeting?”
The Port Chester school board, for its part, plans to read a letter today a forum being held by Latimer in New Rochelle, pressing for state aid. The text is posted below.
Dear Assemblyman Latimer:
Governor Cuomo’s tax levy cap and inadequate state aid has created a budget crisis in our district. Port Chester relies on state aid to fund about 20% of our school budget. Given the new tax levy cap and current state aid figures, Port Chester is facing a $2.34 million dollar budget deficit for the coming school year.
Port Chester is living out the unintended consequences of the tax levy cap. We will soon see a greater disparity between wealthy and needy districts, with Port Chester being no exception. And Port Chester’s children will suffer disproportionately if the state does not take measures to equalize the school funding equation across the state.
Unlike its affluent neighbors, Port Chester is a high needs district. The majority of our students qualify for the Federal free or reduced lunch program. The majority of our students come from homes where English is not the first language. These considerations present unique challenges for our school system. Simply put, our students are at a disadvantage, and it takes more resources to level the playing field for them. Yet, Port Chester’s tax base is primarily comprised of financially-strapped homeowners who simply cannot absorb a tax increase.
The school district has done its part in paring down expenses. Port Chester already spends the least per pupil than any other district in Westchester County. Without proper state aid and reimbursement, the only recourse is to cut very important basic and valuable programs and staff from our schools. We are looking at a $2.34 million dollar budget deficit for 2012-2013. And thus, without relief, Port Chester’s most disadvantaged students will suffer even more as we are forced to eliminate some of the programs and services they so desperately need.
To close our budget gap for 2012-13, we will need to reduce our full-day kindergarten program to ½ day, close our grades K-2 Early Learning Center school building, reduce 10 teachers that provide RTI (Response to Intervention) and AIS (Academic Intervention) services, and lose in total 25.2 teachers, 1 custodian, 4 computer aides, 4 elementary computer labs, 1 elementary science lab, 7 teacher aides, 1 teacher assistant, and 1 school nurse.
The governor’s current budget proposal has increased state aid to Port Chester by $739,405. While on the surface, any increase is good news, some of the state aid we expect to receive is the same amount we received in 2005-2006 school year, seven years ago. Have costs remained the same during the past seven years? The answer is NO. Our student population, teacher and staff salaries, pension and health care costs, and utility expenses, along with the cost of unfunded mandates, have all gone up significantly. We need our state aid to increase significantly to ensure the equitable distribution of resources that can help us meet the basic costs of operation.
Governor Cuomo has set aside $250 million of what would otherwise be state aid for distribution via competitive grants. We ask: is it right to ask school districts to compete for additional state aid? Should Port Chester pull more money away from educational programs to invest in a special grant writer to lobby for our share of this pie? The answer is NO. We ask you to simply look at our intrinsic demographics. The facts lie in the numbers. We are a low income, highly diverse district. We stand to lose the most valuable programs we have for our most vulnerable children.
Our request is simple:
1) Please give some thought to the unique needs we face in Port Chester. We may co-exist in Westchester County, but our population and needs are very unique from those of our affluent neighbors.
2) Consider that our school data shows that many of Port Chester’s school families are undocumented. Due to cultural differences and fear of government, many residents will not or have not participated in the US Census. Port Chester’s under-reported population should be factored into the state aid formula.
3) Please urge the Governor to rethink his competitive grant proposal. This proposal does not allocate funding where it is needed most. Rather, use demographic data to determine which districts are the neediest. Port Chester is a needy district.
4) Realize that the new tax levy cap has the effect of increasing the disparity between wealthy and poor districts. Port Chester needs additional state aid in order to maintain any sense of equity within a tax levy cap environment.
5) Please urge the Governor to understand Port Chester’s case now. Time is of the essence. Under a 5-year tax levy cap, any cuts we suffer now will only be compounded in future years.
In sum, Port Chester is in desperate need of additional state aid this year. We ask for your understanding of our unique circumstances and support for our district.
The Port Chester-Rye UFSD Board of Education
Blanca Lopez, President