Of all places, Clarence has become the tea party battleground over Governor Andrew Cuomo’s property tax cap. An outside, ultraconservative, anti-government lobbying group is using Clarence as a test case to try and defeat school districts’ efforts to pass budgets that will maintain school services. Its propaganda is downright Orwellian in style and content.
On Tuesday May 21st, Clarence voters will go to the polls to vote on the 2013-14 school budget. Turnout is especially important, because it needs a 60% margin to pass. Luckily, most Clarence residents know the importance that the school system has to the town’s identity and growth. Under the proposed budget, a home with $100,000 assessed value will pay about an additional $11 per month. Note that seniors qualify for the enhanced STAR exemption, which exempts the first $63,300 of property valuation from property taxation, easing their overall property tax burden.
Last week, I uncovered the fact that a local leader of the Koch brothers’ astroturf group, “Americans for Prosperity” claimed responsibility for the slick ads urging every Clarence household to vote “no” on the school budget.
For the uninitiated, “astroturfing” is a propaganda effort that is designed to obscure or mask who’s behind it, in order to give off the appearance that it comes from a disinterested, grassroots participant. Through astroturfing, the false sheen of grassroots independence lends credibility to statements made.
In other words, astroturfing is legalized deception used to alter or bring about a specific political outcome. The current edition of the Clarence Bee has a story about it, quoting AFP’s local contact thusly,
…the reason she and others associated with the flier chose to remain anonymous is because many of them have children enrolled in Clarence schools and are concerned about backlash. The reason she agreed to be interviewed was because her name was already out in the open.
Unable to provide details on the funding for the mailers, she said that Citizens for Sustainable Schools is not affiliated with Americans for Prosperity and hopes that the fliers will focus attention on the district’s finances.
Anonymity is the right to be free from accountability. If you won’t publicly stand by your position, what good is it?
While the AFP and its local member deny that AFP funded and produced the mailers, the facts don’t bear that out. The AFP’s Long Island HQ had immediate access to information concerning the local activist claiming responsibility for the mailers. It’s all a construct aimed to keep people in the dark about the outside influence.
At least when the state teachers’ union NYSUT speaks up, NYSUT has the courage to identify itself.
From a perspective of fiscal conservatism, it makes absolutely no sense for the AFP – or a resident – to propagandize for the rejection of a school budget hike of about $11/month for every $100k of assessed value in a very school-oriented town, while likely spending tens of thousands of dollars on slick mailers to every town household, and a shiny full-color, 4-page insert in this week’s Bee.
Those mailers and the accompanying website are professionally done, not the sort of haphazard stuff our local, genuinely grassroots tea party groups come up with. The language they use is as slick as the paper they’re printed on. This entire effort – the language, the quality of the mailers, the timing of the issuance of these materials – underscores that a larger, wealthier organization is attempting to use Clarence as a test case to combat any effort to raise school taxes above the Cuomo cap.
So, I think you’re being lied to.
The reason why AFP’s “local grassroots activist” is “unable to provide details on the funding for the mailers,” has to do with the fact that the funding comes from outside the area and is inconvenient for her. “Citizens for Sustainable Schools” isn’t “affiliated with Americans for Prosperity” because “Citizens for Sustainable Schools” doesn’t exist and tried to keep its AFP association a secret.
Turning now to the merits of the debate – outside influence and money notwithstanding, local people who are upset over the increase have presented valid concerns.
Here are the facts:
1. Even with the proposed increase, school taxes are down overallIf the proposed school budget is passed with a 9.8% increase, the Clarence school tax rate will rise to $15.52/$1000. That is lower than 2007 ($15.86/$1000), and over a dollar per $1000 lower than they were in 2003 ($16.85/$1000). In the last 4 years Clarence School District has lost over $13 million in state and federal aid.
2. Clarence Schools are noted for their efficiency and excellence
Business First ranks the Clarence Central School District as the second best in WNY. It is 93rd out of 98 in per pupil spending, and 92nd out of 98 in cost effectiveness. 92% of Clarence HS graduates attend college.
3. Clarence Central School District has cut jobs
The 2011-13 budgets reduced 60 full time employees. The 2013 – 14 budget reduces another 24. It is a lean and efficient organization.
4. What your YES vote means
- Keeping our music teachers, choruses, orchestras, and bands.
- Keeping music instruction in the high school.
- We won’t just offer kids the bare minimum music curriculum mandated by the state.
- Keeping AP classes and electives.
- Keeping athletic programs at their current levels. Keeping nurses in the schools. Maintaining property values.
Rebutting the opponents’ points and questions:
1. Why don’t the teachers contribute more towards their health care? That would eliminate the gap!
Clarence teachers contribute 8% towards their health care now, and that will increase to 10% in 2014-15. That contribution rate is on par with the average for school districts in WNY. In the contract negotiated in 2012, the teachers agreed to contribute more toward health care over the length of the contract. Some argue that even this is not enough, but under the Triborough Amendment to the Taylor Law, existing contract terms and conditions remain in place after the expiration of the contract, unless a successor agreement changes those terms. The Taylor Law makes it very difficult to get large concessions in a single contract bargaining cycle. The district has the objective of continuing to press for more contribution to health care, but it has to happen incrementally over multiple contracts. A contract cannot be reopened without the agreement of both sides and even if it could be reopened, the Taylor Law keeps all terms in place until both sides agree on changes. The administrators have agreed to two salary freezes in the last three years. They also agreed to contribute to their health care in the contract settled this year.
Some argue that the union has made no concessions, but that is not true. The union agreed to a lower salary increase this year than would have been in place under the Taylor Law – the first time that has occurred in Clarence. Three years ago, teachers, administrators, and service employees agreed to enter into a self-funded health care system, which is the most cost effective way for the school district to provide health care benefits, saving the district hundreds of thousands of dollars.
It is not accurate to claim that if teachers and administrators contributed 25% to health care that the deficit would be closed. We began this year with a $6.5 million deficit. Even if teachers and administrators paid 50% toward health care it would not close that gap.
2. Why not just cut more from the administrative side?
It bears repeating that Clarence has been ranked as the 6th most efficient school district in terms of administrative functioning. A central office administrative position was cut last year, which should further enhance the Business First efficiency ranking. The central office has fewer administrative personnel than any other comparable district in the area, and is not overstaffed.
3. The District should offer an incentive for higher-paid, older teachers to retire!
The District attempted to negotiate a retirement incentive with the Clarence Teachers Association, but an agreement that would have reduced the deficit could not be reached.
4. The District is spendthrift, with a 50% increase per pupil over the last 10 years!
New York State does not calculate per pupil spending by simply dividing the budget by the number of students.
- General Education Spending: Clarence: $8,493 per pupil, Similar Schools Group: $12,377 per pupil
- Special Education Spending: Clarence: $15,192 per pupil, Similar Schools Group: $35,924 per pupil
- Total Expenditures: Clarence: $14,551, Similar Schools Group: $22,962
- Budget expenditures have increased over the last 10 years, especially with respect to benefit costs. Clarence is tightly budgeted and when compared to similar schools and based on the NYS average, Clarence is more efficient.
UPDATE: 5. Median School Tax Bill in Clarence is much higher than Williamsville!
The AFP flyer in the Bee used this argument. There are many more million dollar homes in Clarence than in Williamsville, so by using the median they basically compared taxes on a $400,000+ home in Clarence to a $200,000 home in Williamsville. For the real tax information look at the facts from Erie County: Click here to view Erie County’s Real Property Tax Rates
6. Enrollment has dropped and the District hasn’t adjusted for this.
Enrollment has dropped 9% since 2007. Almost all of that drop (288 kids) has happened at the elementary level, and the district has reduced 15 elementary teachers over the past three years, accounting for that decline. In fact, at an average class size of 23 students, the 15 teachers would account for a decline of 354 kids – so it is not accurate to state that the District has not made adjustments to declining enrollment. It is not possible to close an elementary school at this time, and elementary enrollment would have to drop to approximately 1800 before closing a school could be considered – this year’s figure was 2,051. The elementary enrollment drop is projected to stabilize in 2016-17 at around 1,900 kids. The middle school will start to decline in 2015-16 and the high school will remain relatively steady for the next 5 years. It is not accurate to say the district has not adjusted for enrollment decline.
7. Wages and Benefits are growing at Unsustainable Rates.
Pension and health care costs have gone up exponentially over the past 10 years. Pension costs are established by the State Comptroller and TRS Board - they are based on a state constitutional funding level and are highly influenced by stock market investment. The school district and state municipal governments have no control over them. There is a 5-year average of investment income for pension costs and the stock market crash of 2008 is still being factored into the total. It will be that way for one more year and then the pension costs will begin to come down. Last year, there was a new tier added to the pension system that contained costs for all new members. 10 years ago pensions were 0.36 of payroll, next year it is 16.25% of payroll. That is a 451% increase in 10 years. It accounts for a big portion of the budget costs. This is an issue to take up with the State Comptroller and TRS board. Anyone promising to fix it at a school board/school budget level doesn’t understand their limitations.
School Board Election: DePasquale and Andrews
As the signs on lawns indicate, there’s a school board election on Tuesday, as well. A large slate of candidates are competing to fill two empty slots. The well-funded forces opposed to school excellence have identified two candidates, whose absurdly large lawn signs litter the town. I asked Brendan Biddlecom of Keep Clarence Schools Great about the school board candidates, and he noted that the large number of candidates threatens to split the pro-school vote. (Note: this is what a real grassroots website looks like – a Google site and online petitions).
To that end, candidate Matt Stock yesterday withdrew from the race, noting the, “abundance of candidates who share my concerns about the preserving the well-being of the district. In an ordinary election, this would be a great thing. Unfortunately, this year we also have two candidates who do not share my views, or the views of other pro-education candidates”. Stock added, “[t]here is also an unprecedented amount of outside money attempting to negatively influence the election. These two factors mean that there is a real risk of ‘splitting the vote’ and having candidates elected that do not have the support of the majority of voters”
Keep Clarence Schools Great has gone one step further and formally endorsed the candidacies of Tricia Andrews and Joe DePasquale for the school board. In his withdrawal letter, Stock endorsed them, as well. Noting the unique situation this year, Biddlecom wrote that, “for the last three years, the school system has been under a steady assault, and now we’ve reached the breaking point. An overly conservative financial management strategy exhausted reserves and helped create the situation we’re in now.”
By coalescing support behind two pro-school candidates; DePasquale works in IT and volunteers with the little league football league, and his wife is a teacher. Andrews is a former teacher who has been active with the Harris Hill PTO for the last seven years, and has served as its president for three. As Biddlecom once told the Bee, “I think we need to move beyond this sense of self-preservation and look at the schools as being part of the fabric of our community and understand that even if you’re going to look at it again through a completely self-interested perspective, having quality schools should be a concern of yours.”
There is no slippery slope argument at hand, or indication that this is the start of endless cap-busting tax hikes year after year. This is a one-shot deal that’s needed to get the school’s fiscal house back in order. Please vote YES on Tuesday May 21st at the High School Gymnasium. Turn-out is critical. Please make sure you go, and make sure your friends and neighbors don’t forget, either.