Saturday, January 15, 2011

If you have a problem with teachers unions . . .

If you have a problem with teachers unions, there's a good chance you might be a "right-wing", conservative millionaire.  At least, that is the view of the New York State United Teachers (NYSUT), the federation of unions representing state teachers.

From a Journal News interview with state and regional union leaders:
Herb Pinder, Lohud Opinion Page Editor:
"It certainly seems that the pendulum is swinging against public employees unions and I just want to get your perspective.  Is this general angst or the residue of the overall state of the economy or are we seeing something much, much bigger at work? . . . I’ll start with you, Mr. Korn."

Carl Korn, chief press officer for NYSUT:
"I think one of the things we are seeing is a concerted and orchestrated effort by the right to vilify public employees and vilify unions for the problems that they didn’t create.  Speaking only for NYSUT we believe in collaboration.  We believe in partnership and being part of the solution.  But sometimes we take a step back and we look at these same headlines and we look at who’s behind them, and they’re most often right-wing think tanks and conservatives who are also special interest.  And the special interests are representing the banks and the Wall Street millionaires who got us into this mess in the first place."

Friday, January 14, 2011

Is it really necessary to complete the FAFSA?

When you're applying to college, do you need to submit the FAFSA* even if you are quite certain you will not qualify for need-based aid?  After all, you are disclosing all sorts of information to colleges when you submit the FAFSA.  Plus, it's a time-consuming task.

In the NYT's The Choice, Mark Kantrowitz gives us a few reasons to submit the FAFSA:
  • It is difficult to predict if you will qualify for need-based aid, and surveys have found that it is common for families underestimate their own eligibility.  Sometimes you just need to complete and submit the form to learn if you qualify.
  • The FAFSA is required for federal Stafford and PLUS loans, which are not need-based.
  • Some schools require students applying for merit-based aid to complete the FAFSA.
  • Congress changes the rules quite frequently, so you may be caught off guard if you don't have a FAFSA on file.
Every family has to judge for themselves, but it's important to consider all the facts before deciding.

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (known as the FAFSA) is a form that can be prepared annually by current and prospective college students (undergraduate and graduate) in the United States to determine their eligibility for student financial aid (including the Pell grants, and work-study programs)

Thursday, January 13, 2011

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie - role model for education reform

It sounds good to me.
And on Tuesday, the governor, a Republican, used his State of the State address to push his education agenda further by calling for an end to teacher tenure, on top of his support for merit pay for teachers based partly on student achievement and adoption of a voucherlike system that would give students in low-performing schools other options.
Michelle Rhee's new organization, StudentsFirst, is providing policy support for Governor Christie's education initiatives.

Governor Thrusts New Jersey to Fore of an Education Fight - NYT

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Putting the brakes on school spending in New York State

My friend Catherine alerted me to this:
5 Troubling Property Tax Facts
  1. Property tax levies in New York grew by 73 percent from 1998 to 2008—more than twice the rate of inflation during that period.
  2. New York has the second highest combined state and local taxes in the nation and the highest local taxes in America as a percentage of personal income —79 percent above the national average.
  3. The median property taxes paid by New Yorkers are 96 percent above the national median.
  4. When measured in absolute dollars paid, Westchester (1st), Nassau (2nd) and Rockland (5th) counties are among the 5 highest taxed counties in the nation.
  5. When property taxes are measured as a percentage of home value over a three year period, the top sixteen counties in the nation are all in Upstate New York.

New York State school districts and municipalities are facing unrealistically large property tax increases this coming year, caused partly by "skyrocketing" pension costs.  The town portion of my property taxes will increase by over 16% this year.  It is simply unsustainable, and Governor Cuomo has proposed a property tax cap of 2% or the rate of inflation, whichever is less.  If this cap is enacted, schools will be forced to make painful spending cuts.  But they have countered that any tax cap must be coupled with mandate relief.
The group is offering a host of recommendations to lower the mandates on schools. Among them is a one-year freeze on the salaries of school and public employees. They also want public employees to contribute at least 10 percent toward the cost of health insurance and establish a new 401k-type pension tier.
Mandate relief is needed.  Something’s gotta give.

Having more than one child in college usually lowers EFC and can increase financial aid

From the NYT's The Choice Blog, Mark Kantrowitz explains how a family may qualify for more financial aid if they have more than one child in college.
The expected family contribution (EFC) is the sum of a student contribution and a parent contribution. When there are two or more children in college at the same time, the parent contribution is split among them.
The student contribution may differ depending on the income and assets of each child. In most cases having more children in college at the same time leads to a decrease in the EFC for both and an increase in the amount of financial aid.
For example, let’s consider the financial aid eligibility of two hypothetical families, one with just one child in college and the other with twins. Assume that the college costs $30,000 a year. With one child in college, the EFC is $16,000, consisting of a $2,000 student contribution and an $14,000 parent contribution.
The financial need for this child is the difference between $30,000 and $16,000, or $14,000. With two children in college, the EFC for each child is $9,000, since each child gets half of the $14,000 parent contribution.
The financial need for each child is the difference between $30,000 and $9,000, or $21,000. So by having two children in college at the same time, each child gets significantly more financial aid.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Teacher pension costs are "skyrocketing"

Some information from today's Journal News article:
  • Teacher pension costs are "skyrocketing".  In Henrick Hudson Schools the increase this coming year will be 38%, forcing the school to borrow funds.
  • The state is making steep cuts in state aid and federal stimulus money is "drying up".
  • Teachers enjoy guaranteed pensions while most taxpayers assume the risks in their retirement accounts.
  • The number of retired teachers receiving pension benefits under TRS has more than doubled over the last ten years.
Most local school districts could have to raise their tax levies by 1.5 percent to 3 percent next year simply to cover required payments to retirement systems for teachers and other employees.
The two main statewide pension funds saw their investments battered late in the last decade, and state law automatically requires school districts to pay higher rates to make up the difference.
"It couldn't happen at a worse time," said David Albert of the New York State School Boards Association. "We have one of the worst economic climates in history and, by the way, your pension costs are skyrocketing."
School districts are awaiting steep cuts in state aid. Federal stimulus money is drying up. Health- care costs continue to rise. And districts are coming to terms with the havoc that Gov. Andrew Cuomo's proposed 2 percent property-tax cap would unleash on all aspects of school budgeting as it has traditionally been done in New York.
Now districts, as they begin working on their 2011-12 budgets, have to explain to taxpayers why they may have to open their wallets wider to cover guaranteed pensions for teachers, administrators and other public employees.
"A lot of people don't have a defined pension anymore and understand that what happens in the stock market affects their 401(k) portfolio," Tarrytowns Schools Superintendent Howard Smith said. "But in New York, these funds are stable and the beneficiaries don't share any risk. It's all on the district, and we get our resources from the taxpayers."
Smith said his district's contributions to the funds would rise to $4.4 million next year from $3.1 million this year. The increase translates into a 2 percent jump in the tax levy.
"Salaries are negotiable," Smith said. "Pension costs are not."
He noted that the pension increase alone would eat up the entire proposed property-tax cap.
Each year, all districts outside New York City have to contribute a percentage of their payroll to the retirement systems. The rate is determined by how the pension funds' investments performed over a five-year period.
The state Teachers' Retirement System's net assets — money available to pay current and future benefits — stood at $76.8 billion at the end of fiscal 2010. But the fund lost $7.8 billion in 2008 and a whopping $21.5 billion in 2009 before rebounding with a $6.8 billion gain in 2010.
As a result of several years of losses, districts in the fall will have to contribute 8.62 percent of the payroll for future beneficiaries to the TRS fund - up from 6.19 percent last year.
The New York State and Local Employees' Retirement System, which covers other school employees, is increasing its contribution rate from 7.4 percent of payroll last year to 11.9 in 2011. But a new alternative allows school districts and municipalities to finance the increase over 10 years.
"We've worked very hard the last several years to reduce our budget increases, but there is only so much we can do when we have these increases in the retirement system and projected losses in state aid," Hendrick Hudson Schools Superintendent Daniel McCann said.
Hendrick Hudson's payment to the TRS will increase by 38 percent to $3.5 million. This jump translates into a 2.46 percent increase in the district's tax levy.
The district will finance its $358,000 increase toward the second fund.
"While borrowing isn't always the best strategy, in this context, it is," McCann said.
The Teachers' Retirement System has seen its number of active members — those who will receive future benefits — increase to 285,774 in 2010, from 195,194 in 1990. The number of people collecting benefits has climbed during the same period from 69,127 to 141,716.
Teachers, administrators and others contribute differently to their retirement fund depending on when they were hired.
The biggest groups of teachers, who became part of the pension system between 1976 and 2009, contribute 3 percent for their first 10 years of membership, then nothing thereafter.
In 2009, the state approved a new tier for public employees hired after Jan. 1, 2010, that, among other things, requires employees to contribute 3 percent for their careers.
Currently, retired teachers who served for 20 to 35 years receive an average annual benefit of $36,064.
Thomas DePrisco, a member of the Pearl River Board of Education and the Rockland Board of Cooperative Educational Services school board, insists that the state has to force midcareer teachers to contribute to their pension funds for their entire careers.
This was the case until it was changed a decade ago.
DePrisco, a former teacher and police officer, said he is not anti-public-employee.
"My question is why taxpayers have to pay more to replenish these funds when hundreds of thousands of teachers are not paying a dime into their pensions?" he said.
DePrisco said that ongoing contributions by teachers and others would save districts enough money to make a difference.
"Maybe it would save two teacher positions," he said. "I'm worried. The next few years will not be good for us."

Another school looking at what cuts can be made to next year's budget

As is reported in this Jornal News article, Chappaqua taxpayers are not in the mood to accept a 6.6% school budget increase.
 After absorbing the bad news about next year's budget presented in November at the first of a series of budget sessions, the school board will start the discussion Tuesday about what can be cut to bring the spending and tax increases to a level the public will accept.
With rising pension costs, debt service and salaries, spending would have to increase by 6.6 percent to $116.6 million to carry over all the programs from this year.
"That was basically, put the shocker number out there and say what do we do now," school board President Janet Benton said.
The answer, Benton said, is that the numbers are unacceptable and the board must cut.
In Tuesday's discussion, the board will begin to look at nonpersonnel reductions that could be made.
Later, Benton said, the board will likely turn to instructional staff reductions to get to an acceptable number. Class sizes could be raised to contractual limits, she said.
"It's a big puzzle right now and not an easy one," Benton said.
The group New Castle Citizens for Responsible Education is urging residents to go to the meeting to advocate for a zero-increase budget.
The meeting will be at 8:15 p.m. at Horace Greeley High School, 70 Roaring Brook Road, Chappaqua.
After Tuesday, the next step is for Schools Superintendent John Chambers to present his budget recommendations Feb. 15. A series of meetings will be held in March and April before the board votes April 12.
The public will vote on the budget May 17.