Parents across Westchester, Rockland, Putnam and Orange counties—who are tired of seeing property taxes rise, their children’s teachers fired and programs like sports, arts and language eliminated or in danger of being eliminated from school curriculums—now have a way to fight back.
More than 18 school districts in the quad-county area, who represent more than 50,000 students, are launching letter writing campaigns encouraging parents to write New York State legislators and education officials asking for relief from unfunded mandates, which the Lower Westchester Education Consortium (LWEC) says are bleeding schools of its funding and diminishing the quality of education.
“The idea was to start to inundate legislators with these letters while budget negotiations were going on so they would understand where parents stood on these issues,” said Hastings-on-Hudson parent Tracy Pyper, LWEC Chair and Advocacy Chair for the Westchester East Putnam Region PTA.
The LWEC—a group of local school district officials, parents and others interested in education—was started by Ardsley Superintendent Dr. Lauren Allan and Rye Neck Superintendent Dr. Peter Mustich as a regional advocacy group for local schools in January 2012.
The letter writing campaign asks parents to send four letters to public officials asking to for: relief from mandatory and increased testing requirements such as the new Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR) legislation; modification of the 2 percent tax levy cap; to end or amend unfunded mandates, like Wick’s Law and the for the return of local control over educational policy making. (Click on the links above to view Ardsley School District’s letters).
“Times are changing and they are changing fast,” said Pyper, who has a sophomore and a senior in Hastings-on-Hudson High School. “You can no longer just send your child to school and expect that all the programs and staffing and everything will be there. Parents are going to have to learn how to be advocates for public education and for their child’s education because we have less and less control over school budgets because of the unfunded mandates and reforms that are being pushed at such a fast rate.”
The LWEC projects APPR alone will increase local school budgets in the lower Hudson Valley by 3 percent annually due to its required costs for professional training, the purchase and correction of new standardized tests, data storage and network upgrades. APPR testing will cost between $502,560 to $1.3 million among districts.
The LWEC estimates that its school districts will be on the hook for $6 milion in unfunded costs due to programs like Common Core, 3012C Training Assessments, technology and professional development.
Though State legislators and the governor promised to ease the burden of state mandates when the 2 percent tax levy cap was passed—no relief has come, the LWEC says. According to the LWEC, the State’s pension requirements also exacerbate fiscal constrains on local schools districts since the State does not contribute to pensions for public school employees and requires local schools districts to fully fund these increasing costs.
Unfunded mandates combined with a reduction in State aid has forced some school districts to make tough decisions that the LWEC says will only get tougher if things don’t change.
Assemblywoman Shelley Mayer, a Democrat from Yonkers, told the Legislative Gazette during a recently rally by The Association for Quality Education and the New York State United Teachers in Albany that her district has lost more than 350 teachers, art and music courses for lowers grades and sports for middle schools. According to Mayer, Yonkers has nothing left to cut from its budgets.
Rivertowns schools have been slightly luckier, however they’re still making difficult cuts.
Allan said that the Ardsley School District has cut 20 teachers, 17 and a half teaching assistant, 12 teachers aides, six night janitors, two security guards, a clerical position and bus monitors to stay within the 2 percent tax cap over the last three years.
“Over the past few years, most districts have been cutting in places as far from the classroom as possible,” said Eileen Baecher, President of the Hastings-on-Hudson Board of Education. "At this point, the only place left to find the scale of cost savings is in personnel, which will lead to increased class sizes, fewer educational and extracurricular offerings and less ability to maintain and secure our facilities.”
Brad Hunt, a parent and member of the 2011-12 Irvington School District Budget Task Force, said budget cuts are unsustainable and that the reason people move to the Rivertowns are for its small class sizes and outstanding programming.
"Losing these programs would mean that we pay the highest property taxes in the nation for no reason," said Hunt.
Pyper said she has spoken to some state legislators who are using the letters as lobbying tools in Albany.
“They can use these letters to walk into someone else’s office and say ‘This is what parents believe,’” said Pyper. “I think parents are going to be far more engaged and outraged when we start seeing the losses to staffing and programming that is sure to come in a year or two as a combination of the tax cap and unfunded mandates really kick in. I think we [LWEC] are just getting stronger and we truly have not only the strength of our convictions on our side, but we know that people want quality public education. They do not want this compromise, so we just feel like it is our job is to educate both parents and legislators on how critical this is.”
Some participating school districts include:
- Ardsley Union Free School District
- Irvington Union Free School District
- Dobbs Ferry Union Free School District
- North Rockland Central School District
- Eastchester Union Free School District
- Rye Neck School District
- Edgemont School District
- Union Free School District of the Tarrytowns
- Elmsford Union Free School District
- Valhalla Union Free School District
- Hastings-on-Hudson Union Free School District
- Yorktown Central School District
- Briarcliff Manor Union Free School District
- Chappaqua Central School District
- Clarkstown Central School District
- Harrison Central School District
- Ossining Union Free School District
- Warwick Valley Central School District