Mandates get blame for costs

When voters trek to the polls May 18 to render a decision on school district budgets, most will focus on the bottom line: How much more is it going to cost?

What they may not realize, according to local administrators, is how little control their local school boards have over spending.

New Greenport Superintendent Michael Comanda has it down cold — 80 percent of his $13.8 million budget proposal was set in stone, he says, before he even set pen to paper to offer his recommendations to the school board.

That figure is typical in other districts. It represents a combination of unfunded or partially funded mandates imposed by the state and federal governments and existing contractual agreements with three- to five-year life spans.

A memo from the State Education Department issued this month took six pages to list what the department agreed were “mandates” to local district.

Southold Superintendent David Gamberg says 27.97 percent of his budget for the 2008-09 school year paid only for special education. Other mandated costs and contractual agreements brought his fixed costs above the 80 percent mark.

In his “One Island, One Voice” letter-writing campaign, Mr. Gamberg has focused on three areas where he argues that costs that fall heavily on local districts need to be shared more with the state. He would like to see the state pick up 50 percent of the costs of pensions, health care insurance and special education, he said.

“The district has the lion’s share of those costs” despite some state and federal reimbursements, Mr. Gamberg said. Each district’s so-called “discretionary spending” is the smallest piece of the budget, he said.

There are substantial costs associated with mandated paperwork. The state requires each district, regardless of size, to file 132 separate reports, he added. For tiny New Suffolk, that required expanding the hours of a part-time clerk to full time, Superintendent Robert Feger complained last year. Mr. Gamberg said the state education commissioner has suggested ways to cut back on the paperwork.

There are also auditing expenses that have been imposed on school districts ever since 2005, when some Roslyn School District officials were convicted of embezzling close to $12 million. No one argues that more checks and balances and better reporting were needed, administrators say. But superintendents have complained about having to file the same basic information in different forms for various state committees.

Even when costs aren’t specifically mandated, local administrators have little latitude in deciding whether or not to allocate money, Mattituck-Cutchogue Superintendent James McKenna said. His board agreed to put $100,000 into a capital improvements fund that’s not a direct mandate. But the state does require reports about building conditions.

“You can’t let it go forever,” Mr. McKenna said about maintenance, repairs and replacements.

In Greenport, a $16,000 allocation to repair bleachers on the playing field isn’t mandated, but the condition of those bleachers makes them unsafe and the district’s insurer has been firm that they must be repaired, replaced or not used. The cost of replacement would have been more than $100,000, according to school board member Tina Volinski.

Academic intervention services during the summer aren’t mandated and neither are sports. But are those items you want to cut out of your budget? Mr. McKenna asked. Greenport did cut out summer school costs, but it’s being criticized by some for penalizing students who lack the funds to travel to Riverhead and pay their own tuition.

Student testing is mandated, but training of staff to administer the tests isn’t, Mr. McKenna said. He doesn’t see how the local district can avoid bearing that expense. Similarly, the district doesn’t have to put money into new computers every year. But Mattituck has some that are 10 years old.

“Some of them are old enough to be doorstops,” he said.

Special education services are mandated, as is transportation on the rural East End. While students and parents may not opt to use the provided buses, districts still have to contract for enough seats to serve them.

Academic intervention services are mandated for students who fail to score high enough on state tests. So too are school aides to assist special education students. Other aides working with mainstream students in some classrooms aren’t mandated but, in a large class, they’re needed, Mr. McKenna said.

Other mandates run the gamut from administrative and business costs to facilities requirements, health and safety regulations and technology and human resources services.

At the end of the day, superintendents agree with Oysterponds Superintendent Stuart Rachlin, who frequently has said that he and board members are left to decide only how many paperclips they’re going to purchase.

[email protected]