What Do You Think?
Steve Levy, the Suffolk County Executive, Proposes That Superintendents Be Elected, Rather Than Appointed
We say Yes!! And, let's elect our Chancellor as well. Betsy Combier
February 5, 2006
Politics and the Schoolhouse
By VIVIAN S. TOY
SCHOOL superintendents on Long Island have had a rough couple of weeks.
First, Steve Levy, the Suffolk county executive, proposed that superintendents be elected, rather than appointed by school boards, as a way to make school administrators more directly accountable to taxpayers.
Next came a new study finding that nearly all Long Islanders see rising property taxes, mainly levied by school districts, as a serious problem, one that is driving many people to consider moving off the Island.
Then on Monday, just as two former top officials of the William Floyd School District were pleading guilty to stealing from the district, two more were arraigned, this time on charges that they falsified documents to help a relative of one of them get a job with the district. Thomas J. Spota, the Suffolk County district attorney, harshly criticized the district's superintendent, Richard J. Hawkins, for not doing more to prevent such crimes; Mr. Hawkins called the criticism unfair.
School officials throughout the Island have been feeling embattled since the scandals in the William Floyd, Roslyn and other districts first made headlines and since voters began rejecting budgets by the score two years ago. But Mr. Levy's proposal took them into new territory.
"Superintendents are very intelligent public servants with crippling mandates," Mr. Levy said in an interview. "But the system clearly needs more accountability."
Others have proposed revenue measures, like replacing the school property tax with an income tax, but Mr. Levy said unrestrained spending was the crux of the problem.
"You've got to be able to say no to things," Mr. Levy said. "And I believe that the accountability of being elected will bring greater concern for the pain that taxpayers are experiencing."
Mr. Levy concedes that the idea of electing superintendents, raised in his State of the County address on Jan. 24, is a long shot that would require approval from the State Legislature. "But I raised it to elevate the level of discussion, and to keep us focused on trying to curb expenditures," he said.
Indeed, the idea has drawn little public support. But it comes just as school officials across the Island are preparing the budgets for next year that they will put before voters in May, and as state legislators are debating a host of bills that would either control school spending or limit property-tax increases.
School officials argue that school districts are already accountable to voters through elected school boards. But other elected officials and budget and planning experts said that, even if Mr. Levy's plan proves unworkable, he has set his sights on the correct target.
Lee Koppelman, the executive director of the Long Island Regional Planning Board and the author of several studies on school financing, said he did not think much would be changed by having superintendents chosen by voters.
"But Mr. Levy is absolutely on the right track, because there has to be greater accountability, beyond the question of controlling corruption," Dr. Koppelman said. "Right now, they work on the attitude that nobody shoots Santa Claus, and the more they spend, the more popular they are."
Over the years, Dr. Koppelman has recommended consolidating local school districts into fewer, larger ones; replacing property taxes with an income tax earmarked for schools; and limiting districts to a single budget referendum each year, rather than letting boards resubmit a defeated budget for a second vote. The one-vote-a-year idea is also being pushed now by Gov. George E. Pataki and several state legislators.
"All of these studies go nowhere," Dr. Koppelman said, "because of entrenched interests like employee unions, and because there's a very strong local home-rule commitment on Long Island."
Dr. Koppelman praised Mr. Levy and Thomas R. Suozzi, the Nassau county executive, for addressing the school financing issue even though their offices have no control over school districts. Mr. Suozzi, who is trying to make local taxes a statewide issue as he considers a gubernatorial bid, organized a meeting of Nassau school officials last month to discuss taxes and finances.
"If the two county executives stick to their guns, they might build the constituency to bring about some change," Dr. Koppelman said.
Desmond Ryan, a Republican lobbyist, said, "Taxpayer anger is starting to grow, and the polls tell the politicians that school property taxes are a major issue, so they're trying to get in front of it and be cheerleaders for change."
But school officials said that elections for superintendent would only politicize the schools.
"When you're dealing with people's children, it's emotionally charged enough as it is," said Chris Gallagher, superintendent of the Southold school district and president of the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association. "Introducing party politics into the schoolhouse can't help things."
Susan Bergtraum, president of the Nassau Suffolk School Boards Association, agreed. "School boards are already the closest level of government to voters," she said. "This is as grass-roots as it gets."
Having to run for re-election also would make superintendents approach their jobs differently, possibly at the expense of educational values, she said.
Changing their approach, though, is just what Mr. Levy has in mind. He said that village mayors, town supervisors and county executives all know that they must keep tax rates under control to keep their jobs. "We have to be able to say no to things we want, to have the capacity to say yes to things we need," he added.
Dr. Gallagher said superintendents already make tough decisions on which programs to keep. "If we're not saying no enough of the time, then voters can control that when they vote on the budget," he said.
Lately, Long Island voters have been rejecting school budgets at double the statewide rate; more than one-third were voted down in 2004 and again in 2005.
It is not the first time that school property taxes have sparked voter rebellion on Long Island. In the late 1980's, local tax-protest groups known as Tax Pacs were organized in many districts and by 1993 had won control of nine Suffolk school boards.
Patrick Halpin, who was the Suffolk county executive at the time, said last week that in some ways, conditions then were similar to what Long Islanders face now.
"People were paying a disproportionate rate on mortgages and taxes, and there had been a run-up on housing costs that was pricing people out of the region," Mr. Halpin said. The economy, though, was in much poorer shape then, as the Island's aerospace industry was winding down.
A study commissioned by Mr. Halpin recommended consolidating Suffolk's 71 school districts into 30, to save $55 million a year. But voters rejected the plan. "There was a greater allegiance to football teams than to the taxpayers," he said.
"If you ask people if they believe there's too much government, they say yes," Mr. Halpin said. "But if it means merging a local school district or water company, then people will rebel and revolt against it."
Politicians seem to have learned that lesson. This time around, Mr. Levy and other elected officials have largely steered clear of the consolidation idea. Instead, Mr. Suozzi has urged school officials to try to find savings through cooperative efforts like joint purchase of supplies.
He has also faulted state policies that give upstate districts much more aid, in proportion to their budgets, than Nassau districts get.
The governor and state legislators have their own ideas for making school officials more accountable.
¶Assemblyman Fred Thiele of Sag Harbor has proposed a cap on property taxes for households with less than $200,000 in annual income.
¶Mr. Pataki has proposed giving $400 rebate checks to homeowners in districts that limit their annual spending increases to 4 percent.
¶State Senator Charles J. Fuschillo of Freeport has proposed banning budget revotes, obliging districts to adopt a contingency budget if voters say no the first time.
¶State Senator Kenneth P. LaValle of Selden has proposed requiring school districts to present their proposed budgets and contingency budgets side by side.
¶Mr. LaValle has also proposed allowing school districts to hire business executives to be superintendents, and not just educators.
"We need people who have greater competency in running what are essentially multimillion-dollar corporations," Mr. LaValle said.
In Suffolk, Mr. Levy has proposed his own version of the governor's rebate program: a cap on county property taxes for elderly people in school districts that keep their annual tax increases under 4 percent.
Mr. Levy noted that while the governor's proposal focuses on districts that limit spending, his plan would reward districts that limit taxes.
"Very few schools can spend less than 4 percent more each year, given mandates and rising health insurance and pension costs," Mr. Levy said. "But it can be much easier to limit tax increases to 4 percent by finding other revenue sources."
The problem with these kinds of incentives, according to Frank Mauro, the executive director of the Fiscal Policy Institute, a liberal research organization based in Albany, is that they operate without regard to need. Mr. Mauro said that wealthy districts with ample budgets might have a much easier time adhering to the 4 percent limit than poor districts with little room to cut.
"The governor's rebate checks also would go to everyone in a district, whether they're being forced out of their home or not," Mr. Mauro said. "It gives lots of money to people who aren't overburdened by property taxes."
Andrea Vecchio, a member of the East Islip Tax Pac, said she objects to Mr. Levy's proposed incentive program because it would benefit only the elderly. "I think taxes should be lower for everybody," she said.
The inroads that groups like Ms. Vecchio's made on school boards in the early 1990's did not last long, as the economy improved and voters eventually decided the Tax Pacs' policies were too draconian.
Now, though, she said she expects a resurgence, "because the corruption is out of control and it's finally occurring to people that maybe there was just too much money in these districts."
But E. J. McMahon, a senior fellow for tax and budgetary studies at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative policy-research center, said that tax revolt on the Island was still at an early stage. "There's anger at the taxes," he said, "but there's still heavy investment in the notion that spending a lot on schools is what makes them good."
A full-blown revolt would look more like California in the 1970's, when voters approved Proposition 13, slashing property taxes by almost 60 percent.
"That led to entire slates of candidates getting elected, and they either fired superintendents or browbeat them into engaging in tough contract negotiations and really reducing costs," Mr. McMahon said. "We may be approaching that, but we're not quite there yet."
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