The state’s Mandate Relief Council is urging Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the Legislature to consider changing certain mandates on education, but some local school leaders say those recommendations don’t address the biggest issues facing schools.
On Dec. 18, the 11-member council released its first report, which contains request from school districts for mandate relief and which ones the council approved and will send to the governor and Legislature.
The council supported calls to abolish a mandate that requires students to spend a certain amount of minutes in each course per week, and remove restrictions on class sizes and staff ratios for special education.
In addition, the council approved a request to allow school districts of 1,000 students or fewer to go without hiring an internal auditor. Local district officials said this request would only save a district hundreds.
The council also recommends a review of what state mandates on special education could be removed. At the moment, there are more than 200 state mandates on special education, which exceeds federal requirements. School leaders say reducing the mandates would save districts money.
The council rejected requests to reduce costs of pensions, health insurance and salaries. They also voted down requests to scrap the “last in, first out” mandate that causes employees with the least seniority to be the first to be laid off when a district cuts positions.
James Dexter, district superintendent of the Washington-Saratoga-Warren-Hamilton-Essex BOCES, said he is glad the council was created, but its recommendations won’t provide significant relief for districts.
“I think some of the things they put on the table are worthy of discussion, but they are not going to prevent schools from going insolvent,” Dexter said.
Local school officials say they need relief from the cost of pensions and health benefits, which are two major expenses that are increasing for next year.
As expenses rise greater than districts statewide can generate revenue, it has put some in immediate danger of bankruptcy. For others, insolvency is a few years away, officials said.
Mark Doody, superintendent of Hudson Falls, said he was disappointed but not surprised with the council’s recommendations.
“Most of them (recommendations) can help schools, but there’s not going to be significant assistance in any of those,” Doody said. “We are a service entity and our biggest costs are personnel. Right now, our health insurance costs and pension costs—the benefits are the ones that are driving school budgets.”
Some local superintendents said changes to pensions and the Triborough amendment won’t happen because downstate lawmakers — who have more power in the Legislature — oppose them.
The council was created at the start of the year and met 11 times across the state. The group received 64 requests, including 11 for changes to the Triborough amendment, the most of any issue.
Triborough is part of the state’s Taylor law, and it allows, for instance, teachers to receive annual pay raises known as step increases when a contract expires and a new one is being negotiated.
Some critics of Triborough have said it should be amended so pay is frozen during contract negotiations.
The council includes two senators and two assembly members, including State Sen. Elizabeth Little, R-Queensbury.
Little, on Thursday, said the council’s attorney believed any changes involving Triborough had to come from negotiations between districts and unions.
Little said two districts, including Chateaugay in Franklin County, negotiated with unions to address issues involving Triborough.
She said Triborough did not fall under the definition of a mandate, although she said the Legislature probably could make changes to it.
On pensions, Little said the state constitution prohibits a benefit from being removed once it’s given to a state employee.
At the moment, state employees stop contributing to pensions after 10 years. School districts have asked that the law be changed so employees contributed over a longer period.
Little said a constitutional amendment would be needed for the pension change.
She said she knows superintendents want changes to bigger issues. But those changes are difficult because each mandate has advocates.
“We are trying,” Little said. “Even though some of these things (recommendations) are probably small, if we get enough small things to add up, they will make a big difference.”
Little said the council will continue to meet, and she hopes more businesses will offer requests. She said the council will exist throughout Cuomo’s tenure.
The council rejected requests to allow districts to create a reserve to put aside money for teachers pensions.
State law allows districts to create reserves for certain expenses, including pensions for employees but not teachers. A reserve for teacher pensions gives districts an account to store money for the expense, allowing for some flexibility in budgeting.
Little said the senate and assembly members on the council plan to propose laws to create the reserve.