Monday, March 16, 2015

Running Clarence Schools Like A Business

Did you see the Clarence High School production of Pirates of Penzance this past weekend? These dedicated and talented kids - with the help from their faculty advisers - put on a Broadway-caliber show that was absolutely world class. Everyone from the amazing pit orchestra, to the tech crew, to the cast itself deserves kudos. They have been diligently working on this since late 2014, and their hard work paid off.

It's not just some accident of talent. It's how that talent is nurtured, developed, and grown. It starts with the music programs in the elementary schools, to instrument instruction, to singing, and then is further enhanced by the bands, orchestra, chorus, plays, and musicals that are done at the middle school. 

By the time these kids get to high school, those who are dedicated to drama, music, tech, and singing are well on their way to becoming professionals. It's simply an amazing progression to watch, and the Clarence High School's annual musical productions are absolutely incredible; a testament not only to talent, but to teaching. 

Joe Lombardo is a member of Clarence's anti-tax cabal. He released this "open letter" last week.  
The Clarence school tax compounding an additional 2, 3 or 4 % every year has gone on far too long. The school board and the superintendent are doing the community a great disservice when they present another tax increase that is backed by excuses of “it’s not us, it’s Albany”.
Well, it is Albany, at least in part. Since 2008, the Clarence Central School District alone has lost over $16 million in state aid that was due and owing to it, thanks to the Gap Elimination Adjustment. In order to maintain the educational standards that help maintain Clarence's excellence, that money has to be made up in some way.  In Clarence's case, it was made through cuts, dipping into the fund balance, and through modest increases in the local school tax.

Here's a reminder of what we lost just 2 years ago as a result of the budget fiasco of 2013:

  • Since 2011, the district has cut 113 full-time positions; 53 of them in 2013 alone. 
  • In 2013, the high school lost art, math, English, tech, and business teachers. The entire family & consumer science department was cut, and we lost a guidance counselor. 
  • In 2013, the middle school lost an art, English, and science teacher. 
  • In 2013, the cuts in the revote budget eliminated 3 K-5 teachers, two librarians, and 12 teacher's aides.
  • In 2013, the cuts in the revote budget eliminated four music teachers, the last social worker, and summer school. 
  • In 2013, the cuts in the revote budget eliminated 23 high school clubs and extracurricular activities
  • In 2013, the cuts in the revote budget eliminated 15 middle school clubs and extracurricular activities
  • When these clubs are eliminated, parents must find privately funded alternatives. This hurts the poorest families hardest. 
  • In 2013, the revote budget eliminated all HS freshman sports, affecting 90 kids. 
  • In 2013, the revote budget eliminated all modified sports in the middle school, affecting 225 kids. 

I would like to take the opportunity to remind members of the school board that they are elected officials in charge of leading the realm of education and function of our schools. The only goal of our school board and superintendent should be to protect the quality and sustainability of the Clarence School District even when threatened by Albany and its politics. The days of being beholden to Albany over the residents of Clarence need to come to an end.
No one likes being condescended to, and there is no question that the school board has performed its functions as well as it can under the circumstances; between fiscal assaults and unfunded mandates from Albany on the one hand, and the local anti-school district destroyers on the other, they have their hands full.
The board has a fiduciary responsibility to balance results with costs and eliminate waste.
What "waste"? Clarence is cost-effective and frugal.

  • 3rd best overall cost-effectiveness out of 432 Upstate NY districts
  • 6th overall best administrative efficiency in all of Upstate NY 
  • 6th lowest spending per pupil in New York State 
  • 2nd lowest spending per pupil in Erie County 
  • 7th highest rating for college readiness in Upstate NY. 
  • 2nd lowest full value school tax rate in Western New York 
  • 3rd highest academic ranking in Western New York

They claim that Albany has forced unreasonable costs and mandates upon them and that they feel the pain too. If that's the case, then the school board needs to step up to the plate. It’s time for a coalition of school districts banded across the state with the set forth goal to abolish imprudent mandates, costs and curriculum by means of dissent and boycott.
WTAF does this mean? Look at what Ken-Ton has done. They made a big public show about rejecting the state's testing, and stopped just when they realized that they would lose all of their state funding if they did so. I suppose Clarence could, if it wanted to, make a similar show, but to what end? Does Mr. Lombardo not think that districts are vocally complaining to whomever will listen? Mr. Lombardo doesn't attend school board meetings, or else he would know that Albany mandates are a constant and continuous source of pain and anxiety.

Here's the very strongly-worded letter that Superintendent Hicks sent to Governor Cuomo. Mr. Lombardo must have missed it.  Here's the district's legislative advocacy page. There are additional materials there having to do with Albany activism for and by the Clarence school district.

Mr. Lombardo's best and strongest advice is for the board and superintendent to do stuff that's already been done?
The end result is to restore all school decision making back to the local level. The only outreach to state government for relief thus far has been to eliminate the Gap Elimination Adjustment. This would only give the schools more money to pay for ineffectual and wasteful mandates.
Which mandates are "ineffectual" and "wasteful"?  Those are convenient adjectives that are not backed up by any, y'know, data or facts.  Which mandates, specifically, would Mr. Lombardo like to see abolished? Changed?

It does not solve the problem of compounding taxes or the difficulty of educating under blanket mandates. I cannot conceive why anyone would argue against putting the power to run the schools back in the hands of our elected school board. It’s time to shuffle the deck that has been stacked against local control of schools. A vote in disapproval of this year’s budget is not a vote to destroy education in Clarence. It is to send a message to the school board that they need to begin work on regaining the helm of our school from the selfish captains in Albany. Regards,Joe Lombardo Jr.

Well, that's all well and good, but what Mr. Lombardo is suggesting is not possible under current law, because our school districts and systems are creations and subsets of state law and government.

Make no mistake: it might make Mr. Lombardo and his school-destroying, student-hating cohorts feel better by mouthing that they don't want to "destroy education in Clarence", but they tried it once, and they're apparently willing to try again.  Disapproval of a within-cap levy increase would do to the schools what 2013 did, and force Clarence students out of programs, eliminate teachers, get rid of electives, and do palpable and real harm to students and their educations.

For what? What is the underlying complaint here, you ask?

You can look up any property's school tax history at this link.

Joe Lombardo's property has an assessed full value of $492,000. Only $403,000 of that is taxable, because it's located in an agricultural district.

In 2006, Joe Lombardo's school tax bill was $6,234.31. His property was, at the time, assessed at $475,000, only $393,491 of which was taxable due to agricultural and STAR exemptions.

If Joe Lombardo's 2006 payment of $6,234 merely went up by the rate of inflation, his tax bill today should be $7,227.

Instead, his school tax for 2014 was $5,524 - about $710 less than in 2006; a drop of 11.3%. 

What's so "unsustainable" about a drop of 11.3% over 9 years? 

His school tax in 2014 was $5,450. That means it went up $74, and he received a rebate check for that amount because the levy was below the cap.

These people are out to rob your kids of their education over a tax increase of 20 cents per day that they get back in the form of a rebate check. 

Also, be ready for the inevitable assault on teachers and their salaries and benefits. But when it happens, remember this:

A lot of times, these anti-tax types talk about "running government like a business".  If you ran a multi-million dollar corporation and almost 85% of your key employees were exceeding expectations, you wouldn't cut their pay and benefits, you'd give them a damn bonus. 

The lies are coming fast, and they're more desperate than ever, because they've been losing. Don't let the lies stand. Our students, teachers, school board, and administrators deserve better. 

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