KFW Kan't Find Wurds

On Thursday, April 24, 2014, Kent Fiscal Watch competed in the 5th Annual Adult Spelling Bee charity event that benefits the programs of the Putnam Family and Community Services.

Very proud of our spelling team who, considering it is our first entry, competed to the 4th to last round. Pictured below is the spelling team for this event: Mary Ann West, Ilene Thompson, Joyce Mitchell and Jean Noel. Cheering the team on were Kay and George Baum, Diana Tisi and Tom Mitchell.

This was our first entry, and we look forward to bringing more supporters to next year's event and welcome design suggestions for a flamboyant (as did most other entries) costume for the 6th annual event. We hope to have a large cheering squad to bring us to the finals sharing more fun than you can imagine. ..fun and laughs for a great cause.

Published on behalf of Diana Tisi

CCSD Budget Presentation

I went to the budget presentation hosted by the Carmel Civic Association at the Carmel fire house yesterday evening. The "crowd" was pretty thin -- eleven or twelve people, and that's counting the two non-incumbent candidates for the Board as a part of the crowd. To their credit, the school district and the Board were well represented.

It's clear from the presentation that the District and the Board have had to work quite hard to put this budget together. The District's "tax cap" for this year is 1.40%. If the budget comes in with a tax levy increase of less than this, the budget will pass if a majority of the votes are "For." If the "tax cap" is exceeded, more than 60% of the votes would have to be "For" to pass the budget. The proposed tax levy increase in the budget is 1.39%, the absolute max. This continues the tradition of higher-than-inflation tax increases, and that means that, as with every year in living memory, it takes a slightly larger share of everyone's income to fund the District.

On the other side of the ledger, the budget contains some painful cuts to program, equipment, supplies and to maintenance. It allocates a larger share of expenditures to things like debt service, bus purchases, and employee benefits. In short, things have gotten very tight, probably so tight that people will begin to notice the decline. If not this year, then certainly in the next year or two if the cuts continue apace. For example, some folks will surely notice that at the high school when a student who's not a senior fails a required course, the option to take and pass that course in summer school is no longer available. The student will have to take the course over again during the regular session the next year.

In net, our schools will be okay this year, but it's obvious things can't continue in this way for too many years. We can't keep taking a larger and larger fraction of everyone's income to support schools that cut more and more of their program.

This is serious stuff.

After the presentation I asked about this. The small audience allowed for a good discussion on the topic. It's clear to me that the problem is well understood by the Board. I even think they see it much the way I do. But it's also clear to me there's no plan to deal with the looming crunch. Or even any plan to make a plan to deal with it. Mr. Kreps, the Board President, places the blame for the mess squarely on the NY Legislature and -- with considerable vehemence -- on the Governor. He may well be correct. He explained how he'd been to Albany to advocate with our legislators on behalf of the District. I believe he probably did so with great passion and vigor.

Yet we're still where we are. We have a school district that we increasingly cannot afford that's simultaneously being pushed into decline. While that's pretty horrible, there's worse. In the face of this terrible situation we seemingly have a community that can only muster eleven or twelve people to come to an evening meeting to hear about the problem.

Meet the CCSD Candidates Forum

As you know, on May 20 the Carmel Central School District is holding an election to fill two seats on the Board of Education and a referendum on the proposed budget. Last night, the CCSD held its "meet the candidates" forum. On May 12 it will hold its budget presentation at 7pm in the CHS library.

I went to last night's forum to hear what the three candidates for the two school board seats had to say about why we should elect them. The event was moderated by the Putnam County League of Women Voters. The format was the standard one for LoWV forums -- opening statements, questions from the public read by the moderator, and then closing statements. Timekeepers made sure all the candidates got an equal opportunity. Some of the questions were submitted by members of PTAs and PTOs, others were submitted by audience members.

Here are my impressions about what happened at the meeting.

The candidates clearly wanted to talk about what they could do and had done to make the schools happier, prettier, safer places. They talked about their children and their their experience with the school system, all of which were pretty uniformly positive. They talked about technology in the schools, which they all agreed is a good idea. One of them, Tara DeTurris, was especially enthusiastic about increasing use of technology in the schools.

They were willing to talk about the so called "common core standards" and about standardized testing, but didn't seem too well versed on the details. For example, not one of them was articulate about the common core standards, the curricula the District uses for teaching, and the standardized tests the State uses to measure achievement and, instead, simply lumped it all into "the common core." They were of the opinion that the common core was a Good Thing that had been poorly rolled out by the State Department of Education. All of them thought that, while testing is necessary, the State's tests were poorly done and not useful as diagnostics. They all also said that they thought children who found the tests too stressful should be able to "opt out." And they were clear that they thought teachers should not be measured on how their students do on the tests.

This kind of confusion about what the common core standards are, how they fit (or don't fit) with the curricula and how all of that meshes (or doesn't mesh) with the standardized testing is understandable for the general public, but rather disappointing for candidates for the school board.

All the candidates were willing to talk about collecting and sharing personal data about students. They are all firmly against it and want the data that is collected to remain at the school district level. None of them answered a question about whether the District's current policies and practices for collecting and sharing personal data about students and families is adequate and proper. None of them mentioned the turmoil the State is in now that InBloom, the contractor the State planned to use to manage the data it requires districts to collect, has gone out of business.

It's admirable, in my view, that they think the District should collect and hold only data it needs about kids, but it's disappointing that they seem to have no view about the propriety of what's actually happening or where things are going on this topic.

They clearly did not want to talk about contract negotiations, the Triborough Amendment, taxes, or other fiscal stuff. One of the questions was a direct, "Do you favor repealing the Triboro amendment." The unlucky candidate who got to answer it first, Michelle Yorio, called it "the big elephant in the room," but didn't take a position other than to observe it didn't look like the Triborough Amendment was going away any time soon. She went on to explain that if everyone talked honestly during negotiations it would surely all work out. The other candidates basically agreed, and similarly took no position. The incumbent, Heyam Nesheiwat, pointed out that the Board had done a good job on contract negotiations a few years ago. The agreement has resulted in substantial cost savings and everyone seemed okay with the compromise.

The final question of the night was about whether year-to-year budget increases of about the size proposed for this year -- 2.41% -- would be enough to let the District maintain the quality of our schools while at the same time remaining affordable for taxpayers in the long run. One candidate, Tara DeTurris, said she understood the question but couldn't answer it. Another, Heyam Nesheiwat, said the school funding model in NY is broken. The size of the increase in this year's budget was neither sufficient to maintain our school system nor affordable for the taxpayer in the long run. That means somebody out there at the State or Federal level needs to fix school funding in NY. The third candidate, Michelle Yorio, basically said that ever-increasing taxes were an unfortunate fact of life here in NY. She didn't take a clear stand on whether the increase in this year's budget was a sufficient or sustainable level of unfortunate fact.

It seems to me that the long-term funding of our schools is the single most important item the District faces. In my estimation, Ms Nesheiwat is correct in her diagnosis. On current course, increasing the budget by something like 2.5% on average each year will not sustain the schools at their current quality level. It won't because costs are rising faster than that. You can already see the program being chipped slowly away in the budgets from the last few years. At the same time, adding 2.5% in real, inflation-adjusted dollars year after year isn't a burden taxpayers can bear. At that rate in less than a generation school taxes would double the share they take from each family's income.

I found all three candidates' answers to this crucial question disturbingly weak. I hope Ms Nesheiwat is correct that They will fix it, but betting on Them to do so seems foolish. The community needs leadership on the issue from our Board, but none of the candidates gives any sign that electing her will help.

The Gap Elimination Adjustment



March 21, 2014
Dear Parents and Friends:
YOUR VOICE IS IMPORTANT! Thanks to all who have already written to our legislators to ask them TO ELIMINATE THE GEA! For those who have not yet done so, there is still time. Did you know that over the past 5 years CCSD has lost over $12M in NYS aid due to the Gap Elimination Adjustment (GEA)? For 2014-15, the District is slated to lose another $2.2M. What is GEA and what can you do about it? Learn more and write to your legislators and ask them to support the elimination of GEA. For more information and sample letters visit the Advocacy section of our website at http://www.carmelschools.org/site_res_view_folder.aspx?id=059c3fca-b041-4be3-b7ad-bb9eebc59b2d

It appears the CCSD is on a tear trying to get people to write to legislators to build momentum for doing away with something called the "Gap Elimination Adjustment" or GEA. The GEA is a bit of budget magic thought up a few years ago as a way of vanishing the problem of promising more in State aid to school districts than the State can deliver. It works like this.

Each year, the State decides on the sum it anticipates it will send as state aid to each school district, based partly on economics and partly on what the State politicians think people want to hear. Each year for the last few years the promises have outstripped the State's ability to deliver, partly due to the rotten economy and partly due to political pressure to promise a lot. This creates a "gap" between what was promised and what is possible. Enter the GEA.

The GEA "eliminates" the gap by creating a negative amount of State aid for each district. Add up all the positive State aid and negative State aid, and, Presto!, a bottom line that adds up to what the State can actually afford.

Since each school district ends up holding a little chunk of the overall gap and all the little chunks still all add up to the original big gap, I'm pretty sure nothing's being eliminated at all. Instead, what's happening is that the school districts (who understand perfectly well how this works) get to pretend to be surprised they didn't get what they "planned" to get from the State, and so need to raise local property taxes more than they wanted to. This worked well for everybody until the "tax cap" made it harder for districts to increase local taxes. But I digress.

This year, His Excellency's budget anticipates that there will be a surplus of revenue, so the New York State School Boards Association wants the Legislature to eliminate the GEA. NYSSBA contends that this, somehow, will get school districts more State aid. It won't because eliminating the GEA doesn't create more money.

Even so, getting rid of a budget gimmick is probably a good idea. Instead of creating a gap by promising what's politically expedient and then delivering what's economically feasible, the State should promise only what it can afford. With no gap there's no need for a GEA.

GEA or no GEA, we'll still be left with important problems. The State still won't be able to afford as much as the school districts would like. Local property taxes will still remain unsustainably high. And while everyone will still agree funding for schools in NYS is a mess, we'll still have no general agreement on how to fix it.

But killing the GEA might help push us a step closer to having an honest discussion of our problems with funding public education and a step away from fuzzing things up with budget magic.

CCSD Chooses to Redistribute Tax Burden

As anticipated, the CCSD heard from those who stood to benefit from special treatment. And, as expected, the CCSD Board of Education did the easy thing and gave them their special break. This time the special people were veterans.

From now on – year after year – veterans will pay less in support of their schools than other people. And the other people will pay more year after year to give the veterans their special treatment. According to the CCSD's assistant superintendent for business, next year the fee will be about $29 on average for homes not occupied by veterans. It'll be more later as taxes go up.

Now, everyone agrees veterans pay too much in taxes. So do the rest of us. But is using the school district funding mechanism to make a direct redistribution of wealth really a good idea? How does this action advance the mission of the school district? Why did the Board of Education decide to get involved in setting social assistance policy? Why is the policy of giving veterans who have expensive houses a bigger break than veterans with more modest houses even reasonable?

This is a really bad precedent, in my view. The community does not need the Board of Education to go into the business of setting social assistance policy through selective taxing. If veterans need help – and some might well – it should come through the mechanisms the state and federal governments already have in place, not through jiggering how public education is funded. And the amount of assistance should be tied to need, not to how much property taxes a person pays.

Boo for the State Legislature for allowing this exemption. Boo for the Board of Education for utilizing it. Boo for the veterans for asking for it.

A Modest Proposal from CCSD

The CCSD published an addition of its Schoolhouse News today that may be of interest. It says:

February 4, 2014

Recent changes to the Alternative Veterans Exemption now authorize school boards to offer a special veteran's tax exemption. The CCSD Board of Education is considering providing a partial tax exemption to property owners who are veterans. The District is asking resident community members if they support giving veterans a tax break by completing a brief straw poll by Friday, February 21, 2014.  

For more information and to take the poll, click here or visit our home page at http://www.carmelschools.org


I don't know what you think, but here's my take.

This proposed exemption would undoubtedly be beneficial to those who received it. Every exemption benefits its recipients. But adopting it can't be good in the long run for the community CCSD serves. Inventing new exceptions, exemptions, abatements, and other special deals for this or that favored group, person, or corporation necessarily increases the burden on those who are not given special treatment.

We obviously have a broken and unfair system of paying for public education on our hands, and trying to placate some at the expense of others isn't a reasonable long-term fix. It doesn't address the underlying problems, it sets up resentments between similarly situated people who are treated differently, and it causes unintended demographic shifts as individuals make decisions about where to live.

Whether you agree with me on this or not, I urge you to spend the few minutes it takes to complete the CCSD's straw poll. You really ought to tell 'em what you think.

Open Letter to the New Town Board

Kent fiscal watch recently sent this letter to the new Kent Town Board:

January 16, 2014

Subject: Open letter to the Kent Town Board


Ladies and Gentlemen of the Kent Town Board:

Kent Fiscal Watch would like to give our thanks to each of you for taking on the duties and responsibilities of administering the government of our town. To those most recently elected, we say welcome.

Kent Fiscal Watch applauds the decisions made at the organizational meeting to hold the salaries of the Supervisor and Town Board Members at 2013 levels and to allow residents to speak on subjects not restricted to the formal agenda. Fiscal restraint and open communication are positions Kent Fiscal Watch has long advocated.

Kent’s residents depend on their local government for many services and look to you for their effective, efficient, and transparent management. We recognize that your jobs are not easy, that the five of you will not always agree on the best course of action, and that, despite your best efforts, not everything will be perfect. We trust, though, that by keeping the lines of communication between the local government and those it serves open, you will be able to maintain and build the public’s trust in our local government.

In observing the initial Town Board meeting of 2014, we were heartened to see the collegial interaction among all of you. We urge you to continue to confer with one another at workshops and meetings, especially on subjects on which you disagree.

Again, thank you for agreeing to serve our town. The members of Kent Fiscal Watch look forward to a stellar 2014 under your leadership. If there is anything any of us can do to help you, please feel free to call on us.


David Ehnebuske

President, Kent Fiscal Watch, Inc.

We sincerely hope, dear reader, that you agree with us and will help to encourage the new administration to do its job honestly, openly, and prudently. As the old saw goes, people get the government they deserve. You, as with all of us, have a role to fulfil in deserving good government. We hope to see you at upcoming Town Board meetings.