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Legislative Task Force: The Time to Fight Is Now

Districts can join together to evoke change.

Can school districts actually convince Albany to repeal unfunded mandates to benefit both students and taxpayers alike? Perhaps, if they unite with other districts.

That was the message behind the . About 175 people attended a meeting at the to learn more on Tuesday night.

“The time has come to fight back,” Rob Seiden, a member of the task force, told the audience.

Seiden was referring to the School Bus Transportation Law, which he said currently requires the district to spend millions of dollars running empty buses. He referred also to Wicks Law, which requires districts to hire four separate contractors for school construction, adding an estimated 30 percent more capital projects. This law has been repealed in 49 states.

Seiden spoke also of transforming the state’s pension system so that it is more sustainable, and the Taylor Law and Triborough Amendment to enable districts to negotiate fiscally responsible agreements.

Seated near Seiden, who stood at the podium, were other task force participants, including Frank J. Russo, Jr., the president of the Port Washington Educational Assembly; Sandy Ehrlich and Larry Greenstein, both of whom sit on the Port Washington School Board; Judy Epstein, a Port Washington parent, and Bill Keller, also a parent.

Seiden urged everyone in the room to spread the news about the task force and attend a March 24 rally at Hofstra University’s Sports/Swimming Center at 6 p.m. And he encouraged the community to attend the next task force meeting, the date of which is still to be announced. He also asked that people send letters to key New York State decision makers.

Speaking about the state's current pension system, Russo said, "The pensions are incredibly generous and for most employees they’re 100-percent funded by the taxpayer. We would like to go to the defined contribution plan, but we’re never goint to get there, it’s never going to happen, in my judgement."

Russo continued, "The fairest thing is to keep the defined benefit as they have it but put a put a limit on how much taxpayers pay – say 5 percent of the salary – and require the employees to pay the difference, a matching amount or more if necessary. That would be a fair way to do it if they want to keep the generous pension levels that they have."

Some in the room asked why those unfunded mandates in particular were targeted. The answer: the task force assessed these issues as “low-hanging fruit” and ones where they had consensus. Others could help shape the agenda, by joining the task force, Seiden said.

Resident Joel Katz spoke of abolishing local school districts altogether, saying school boards are not powerful enough to negotiate fair teacher contracts. “They should be negotiated by Albany,” he said, rather than have 700 different contracts across the state.

Joseph Mirzoeff, a former school board member, suggested advocating for a longer school day and a longer school year, which would help New York compete for “Race to The Top” funds, he said. He also recommeded teacher absenteeism reform, and putting teacher absenteeism numbers in district report cards.

Looming behind the unfunded mandates are the and the y, putting even more pressure on school districts, according to some on the task force.

"There ought to be a balance between mandate reform and the tax cap," Keller said.

Asked when reform could make a difference to local taxpayers,  Karen Sloan, who also serves as president of the school board, said that when it came to busing, “We’re hopeful it could help our budget this year.” Other issues may take a year or longer.

There are other mandates worth investigating. Ehrlich pointed out that standardized testing cost the district "hundreds of thousands of dollars," and served to help the state collect statistical data, though didn't necessarily benefit Port Washington students. 

But the important thing, Seiden said, is to find common ground. 

“We have to work together,” Seiden said. “There’s a lot of work ahead of us.”

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