Long Islanders who wonder why school expenses continue climbing in the face of falling enrollments and state caps on taxation might consider this: The largest costs in operating budgets often rise step by step.
"Steps," in this case, are the annual increases built into teachers' pay schedules based upon years of employment. Typically, such schedules encompass 20 to 30 pay levels known as steps, which teachers ascend year by year -- even when contracts expire -- until they reach the top of districts' salary ladders.
These automatic payments are covered under a provision of state labor law known as the Triborough Amendment, which covers all unionized state, county and local government workers, including teachers.
Step increases comprise only part of pay hikes for teachers and other professional school staff. There also are so-called "lane movements" for employees who earn advanced degrees and college credits, as well as "contractual" raises negotiated periodically between unions and local boards of education.
In recent years, teacher unions have accepted far smaller contractual raises -- less than 1.5 percent annually, on average -- compared with salary increases of 3 percent or more that were common before the recession. The result is that steps embedded in salary schedules, which have remained relatively constant year after year, have emerged as the biggest single driver of school costs in many communities.
Taken alone, step increases might appear relatively small, averaging no more than 2.75 percent annually, experts say. But for many districts, the built-in step increases add to the difficulty of balancing the budget without laying off teachers and increasing class sizes, while also staying within the state-imposed cap on property tax increases.
The cap is set at 2 percent or the inflation rate, whichever is lower. This year, the cap is pegged to the inflation rate of 1.46 percent.
The combination of rising steps and restricted tax revenues can leave districts facing potential deficits from the moment they start planning the next year's school budget, experts said.
"That represents a budget catastrophe," said veteran school attorney Gregory J. Guercio, whose Farmingdale firm represents 40 of the 124 public school systems on Long Island. "It requires a school district to save money in the only place where savings exist, and that's payroll."
Most districts on the Island, asked by Newsday about the cost of steps, cited averages of 2 percent or more. More precise numbers are difficult to pin down.
Guercio said a fair estimate would be between 2 percent and 2.75 percent annually.
Representatives of New York State United Teachers, the state's largest teachers union, said they believe the average cost of steps has dropped below 2 percent, but did not provide a precise figure.
This School Voters Guide details district budget proposals for the 2014-15 school year totaling more than $11.5 billion across Nassau and Suffolk counties. District officials, in response to Newsday's request, gave details of proposed budgets.
Specifics of teacher salary increases are included if districts supplied the information. In districts where teacher contracts are under negotiation, district officials usually would not give salary figures to Newsday, although projected figures are included in proposed budgets.
Salaries account for more than half of overall district expenses. Those expenses, in turn, account for more than 60 percent of a homeowner's property taxes statewide, excluding those in New York City, according to a 2008 state study.
Union officials said that members did their part to curb school costs in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash.
"Just about every union local that renegotiated a contract took a step freeze, a contractual salary freeze, or paid a larger share of health insurance," said Carl Korn, a NYSUT spokesman.
The union represents more than 600,000 teachers and other workers statewide.
Yet, salary increases have outpaced inflation in many school districts -- a fact that has not gone unnoticed by taxpayers.
At a recent budget forum in Sayville, several residents disputed statements by school administrators that they faced a "revenue problem" because the state's latest appropriation of financial aid was inadequate to meet the district's needs.
"You have a salary problem -- that's it," Robert Johnson, a local businessman, said to the superintendent and school board. "I'm in the private sector. Nobody's getting raises."
Sayville is one of five districts on Long Island that face potential cap overrides requiring at least 60 percent of voters' approval on Tuesday. The other four districts are Bridgehampton, East Hampton, Patchogue-Medford and West Babylon.
Across the state, the financial squeeze on school districts is prompting fresh debate over the Triborough Amendment and whether it ought to be revised. The measure is fiercely defended by NYSUT and other influential unions, and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has said that any effort to change the status quo would be a tough sell politically.
The amendment bars school boards and other public employers from unilaterally withholding step increases and other employee benefits while contracts are being renegotiated. The measure was adopted in 1982 with bipartisan support in the State Legislature, and takes its name from a contract dispute involving workers at the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority.
The Triborough Amendment helps ensure labor peace, supporters said. They warned that any tampering with it could mean a return to the teacher strikes common in the 1970s, when one walkout in the Levittown district lasted 55 days.
"There has only been a handful of strikes in the decades that Triborough has been in operation," said Lee Adler, a lecturer at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations.
Adler added that the Triborough provision has boosted workers' morale and protected them against arbitrary management decisions.
Opponents, including many school board trustees, responded that school quality will erode unless districts can find a way to control costs without laying off employees and cutting student services.
Unions will have little incentive to negotiate long-term cost savings, critics added, as long as step raises continue automatically even though contracts have expired.
The New York State School Boards Association has called for revising the Triborough Amendment to allow districts to freeze salaries whenever contracts expire. Such a change would not affect other employee benefits such as health insurance, according to the association, which represents more than 700 local boards statewide.
"What we're looking for is reform, not repeal," said David Albert, an association spokesman.