Senior education reporter John Hildebrand held a live chat this week to discuss the May 15 school board and budget elections. Read the full transcript below.

 

Monday May 7, 2012

1:53
Moderator: Welcome to the live chat. Submit your questions ahead of time and come back Wednesday at 8 p.m. to see what reporter John Hildebrand and other readers have to say.

Wednesday May 9, 2012

5:05
Moderator: Keep sending in those questions. The live chat begins tonight at 8 p.m.

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6:01
Moderator: Just a couple more hours before our live chat with senior education reporter John Hildebrand begins. Before he gets here, check out our new school boards and budgets election guide: http://schools.newsday.com/long-island/districts/amagansett/

And of course please keep submitting your questions or just let us know about the issues that concern you.

7:53

Moderator: We are just about to start. Please send us your questions, but also feel free to share your reactions or the issues that you most want to talk about.

8:00
Welcome to our webchat. Tonight we'll be talking about school budgets, which will be up for votes on Tuesday. This is a big subject on Long Island, because it affects the lives of hundreds of thousands of students and involves billions of dollars in taxes. I'm John Hildebrand, senior education reporter at Newsday and moderator of tonight's session.

@Newsday

Let's start with a question from lisound83, who sums up the concerns of many....

8:00
Comment From lisound83
John - Are the sides so polarized that there can never be a respectful dialogue between those who are concerned about high property taxes, caused mainly by continually escalating school taxes, and those who argue that any cut back is a vote against teachers and the educational needs of the children? I have many friends who are teachers and school administrators but when I raise questions about cost cutting and other budgetary belt tightening I get hostile responses and glares. I don't think we can solve the cost of schools problem if each sees it as a zero-sum proposition.

8:02
JH: Well, you're right that feelings run high on both sides. I've seen that myself at school-board meetings. But there's reason to hope for compromise. I say that, because we've just completed a survey of all 124 school districts on Long Island, and we can see that teache contract settlements are coming in at far lower rates than in years past.....

8:05
JH: Let me add that these lower rates of pay increase couldn't have been achieved if school boards and teacher unions hadn't realized that it was in their mutual interest -- and that of children -- to reach accommodation. Now that isn't universally true, of course. In some districts, one side or another has tried to take advantage and upset the balance. But generally speaking, the new state tax caps do seem to have had some effect in getting people to moderate their positions. We'll report more on this in Sunday's Newsday.
John H.

8:06
Comment From chevy28
I would like to know if the superintendants and administrators are making sacraficies like others in the district or are they going to hide their raises like they did in budgets in other districts in Nassau County? Also, I want to know why some districts say that services are not being cut and yet they are cutting special education services and are paying attorneys to sit in on CSE meetings? How do superintendants get away with not answering questions about students in their districts when there are major issues and still keep their jobs?

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8:08
JH: Yes, many superintendents and their deputies have taken pay freezes recently. Others have not. Some of those who have volunteered for freezes are also among the highest paid, so they might have felt they could afford it. In any case, salaries have to be posted each year on a State Education Department website. So raises are hard to hide, although some supplemental payments do occasionally slip through. In addition, the Empire Center for New York State Policy, which is a private think tank, periodically posts new contracts at one of its websites: www.seethroughny.com

John H.

8:10
Comment From LIObserver
Q: Are steps and lanes required for public teachers contracts or are they simply past practices? Q: Is there any current legal bar to voting on public employee wage contracts as a ballot initiative, i.e., put up 3 different teacher contracts and let voters decide?

8:13
JH: Good question -- you've clearly done your homework on teacher contracts. Let's start by explaining those terms. "Steps" are the annual pay increases built into teachers' salary schedules for each year they spend on the job. Those pay increases are in addition to the annual "contractual raises" negotiated every three years or so. "Lane" increases are additional payments awarded to teachers who earn extra academic credits beyond the mandatory masters degrees.....
John H.

8:16
JH: Now back to your question about step and lane raises. As you suggest, those are matters of tradition and are not required by state law. But John Gross, who is managing partner of the Ingerman Smith law firm, tells me that steps and lanes did originate with the State Legislature. Back at the turn of the century, it seems teachers were so poorly paid that lawmakers took it upon themselves to adopt minimum statewide payscales for teachers. Later, when teachers won the right to bargain collectively, those payscales were incorporated into newly negotiated contracts. And no, the public can't vote on contracts. However, the public does vote on school budgets -- at least the portion of the public that is willing to go out and cast ballots -- and those budgets pay for contract raises.

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John H.

8:18
Moderator: Please keep your questions coming. For now, we'd like to share some thoughts about the school board elections by readers.

8:18
Comment From mrgoldbury
What I find troubling is the apathy and ignorance of the community. At our District's budget hearing last week, there were only two members from the community. Just two out of 50,000. Attendance was similar at the numerous development meetings that were held during the past six months. Flaming on Newsday is not the answer. Get out from behind your monitors and keyboards. Take an active role in the development process; take time to question and understand the components of your budget. You would be surprised by how much of your budget is unfunded mandates from the State or Federal Government. To just sit back, complain, and advocate for "no" votes has no honor.

8:19
Comment From EvenKeel
You have the ability to get involved. 7 of my neighbors have run for school board and gotten elected. They are available to me when I want to share my thoughts, and they work hard to do what is best for the kids in our community. I have the ability to go to board meetings and learn about what is going on as well as to speak up when I think things should be changed.

8:22
JH: This is addressed to MrGoldbury: Couldn't agree with you more. Our tallies show that fewer than 15 percent of registered voters participate in school elections generally. In some districts, less than a hundred votes can decide the outcome of more than $100 million in spending. The state's new tax caps give extra power to voters, because districts will now be held to zero tax increases if they don't win voter support of budgets. Let's see if that generates a bigger turnout.
John H.

8:23
Comment From PJ
Do you think the status of labor negotiations should be made public? At board meetings were are constantly told it can not be discussed..

8:26
JH: I can understand people's desire to have negotiations made public. But I'm afraid I have to disagree with you on that one. From my experience, a public airing of positions on union contracts usually leads to grandstanding on both sides. So let the negotiations remain private. But as soon as the contract is initialed by both sides, make it public and put it on a public website so district residents can send in their comments and make their feelings known.
John H.

8:27
Comment From Rob
In my district, the school board election includes, as an option, the choice of a "slate." How does that differ from voting for those running as individuals?

8:32
Comment From Guest
With the tax cap in place when only 15% of registered voters participate, it's amazing that only 41% of them decide whether or not the school budget passes.

8:34
JH: You're raising an important point. The reference is to the 60 percent majority that is required when districts want to exceed their capped tax limit. In effect, this means that 41 percent of voters can block a budget. But remember, that's only in cases where districts decide to override the state's cap. If districts remain within their caps, it takes 50 percent of voters plus one to block a budget.
By John H.

8:36
Moderator: Our readers have been talking about school board and budget elections all week. Here is one conversation:

8:37
chidz1
Why can't Long Island pay to play sports?

8:37
wreckyourself
It's against NY state law. But if you want to do that then don't single out sports. Pay to play music, art, dance, foreign language, business classes, everything that is not used by all students can become pay as you go. That fair. Right?

8:37
khourig
You can't get cut from foreign language club or art but you can get cut from sports. If my kid tries out but is cut from the team, why do I still have to pay for other people's kids to play. Luckily, this hasn't happened to me but I imagine it happens to many others.

8:37
LImomto5
All clubs/sports of a non academic nature that meet beyond the regular school day should be participant funded. Schools have to give a solid education first and all the rest is just icing on the cake. In these hard economic time it is silly to have cake with giant holes in but has pretty frosting. You want to particpate in drama club, chef's club, baseball or football then you can pay you own way. Besides not every sport is offered via school so how is it fair that someone has to pay for karate lessons when the entire town is financially burdened so another child can play lacrosse? Pay to play is the most fair option for everyone involved.

8:41
JH: Sorry, but I have to disagree with supporters of pay-to-play. One of the foundations of public education is that kids will have equal access to school services, regardless of income. Now, the system isn't perfectly equal as we all know, because kids from richer families will always enjoy some advantages -- for example, greater access to private tutoring. But imagine how much less fair the system would be if student athletes, in effect, paid the salaries of their coaches. Hey, kid, wanna be a quarterback?
John H.

8:41
Comment From mrgoldbury
Pay to play disenfranchises the poor.

8:42
Comment From LIObserver
Has there ever been an effort to coordinate salary negotiations among districts to a) avoid leapfrogging as goes on with police contracts, b) reduce the cost of negotiations (lawyers, accountants, etc.) by setting a single contract for all, say, Nassau districts and c) to equalize pay so it is more equitably distributed?

8:46

JH: Great question! There have been a variety of suggestions over the years, but none have gotten very far. One idea, for example, is that Long Island might adopt the approach used in the Washington DC suburbs of Virginia and Maryland. There, as in many southern states, school systems are run countywide. So salaries are negotiated for an entire county and paid by taxes from the entire county, thereby equalizing salaries between rich and poor neighborhoods. Opponents contend that county systems covering Nassau and Suffolk would simply be too large and bureaucratic.....
John H.

8:49
JH: So that's one alternative. Another was raised a couple years ago by Dean Skelos, the State Senate majority leader. His proposal was that new teachers be made state employees, with their salaries negotiated between their unions and the state. Under this approach, local school districts would remain as they are now -- or could remain that way -- but salaries of their teachers would gradually be equalized.
John H.

8:49
Comment From LIObserver
But salary negotiations need not be for a single countywide district. The building trades in NYC do it as do the big 3 auto makers. It is more efficient and transparent

8:51
JH: Fair point. But then, you'd have to come up with a system allowing 124 districts (the number on Long Island) to join somehow in regional negotiations. If you're got any suggestions for achieving that, we'd be interested.
John H.

8:52
Moderator: Time flies! We are down to our last 10 minutes. John will try to answer what he can in that time. Thanks for staying with us!

8:54
Comment From LIsage
Politicians have tricked us into thinking that our schools are bad and that our taxes are too high. Take the big city schools out of the mix and you'll see how great Long Island schools really are. Also, if schools were paid for through our state taxes, like they used to be, rather than through our local property taxes, people wouldn't be blinded by the numbers and and see our schools in a more positive light.

8:58
JH: Well, it's true that Long Island has some of the country's best school systems. That's one big reason why people move here, and we can all be proud of that. But as a reporter who has seen good schools in other states and other countries, I would hate for us to become complacent. Most of our school costs -- more than 70 percent -- are paid by local propery taxes. That means communities with expensive homes and high-rent commercial properties have a big advantage financing their schools compared to neighboring districts that have pockets of poverty. Yes, we have some of the best school districts here. But we also have some districts that are among the state's lowest performers. And that means we're wasting a lot of young brainpower.
John H.

8:58
Comment From LIsage
If there was a regional pay scale wealthier school districts would find ways to add bonuses or other perks to attract the best teachers while poor districts would not be able to compete.

8:59
Comment From Jay
wanted to find out who was running for the board of ed in East Islip. Any info?

9:00
Moderator: Hi Jay, you can find that information in our interactive school board elections voters guide: http://schools.newsday.com/long-island/districts/east-islip/

9:00
Moderator: John is taking his last question now. Sorry if we couldn't get to yours.

9:01
Comment From Awake
Now If any budget is defeated twice, the allowable tax increase is zero.

9:03
JH: Thanks for that reminder. I wanted to include that in our discussion, because it's such an important point. Voters, pro and con, have never had as much leverage over school spending as they will enjoy in Tuesday's elections. So read about your budgets and board candidates at www.newsday.com and in Sunday's Voters Guide and then exercise your vote. Good luck.
John H.

9:05
Comment From LI
Why are people under the assumption that countywide teacher contracts will result in lower salaries or future savings? While well deserved and I fully support, the countywide police salaries are the highest in the nation.

9:05
Moderator: Thank you all for coming tonight. Though we weren't able to get to all questions, we'll publish them below.

9:06
Comment From matt b
Are there any plans to enact a term limit rule for school borad members? I believe these peoples ideas become stale, any thoughts are appreciated.

9:06
Comment From Guest
On average, how much does it cost a school district, which ultimately means the taxpayer, to conduct these annual elections? Why is it that when the budget gets voted down, the district is allowed to retaliate and force another expensive election on the residents? Haven't the people already spoken?

9:06
Comment From ctkelly
I am not sure if this thing is still taking questions but I would like to ask has anyone studied the impact of an austerity budget on housing values in the school district? How dramatically will a failed school budget affect the price of my home?

9:06
Comment From tr
How can we get a voucher system on LI or in NY state? We need choices beyond the one forced down our throat.

9:12
Moderator: And don't forget to check out our interactive voters guide: http://schools.newsday.com/long-island/districts/amagansett/