Assemblyman Edward Ra (R - Franklin Square) who represents the 19th Assembly District which includes a large swath of the Glen Head/Glenwood Landing area, was at the Gold Coast Public Library on April 29 to speak with residents about any topic of their choosing. During the hour and a half event that was attended by about 20 constituents, the Assemblyman took questions on a wide variety of issues including financial concerns such as teacher pensions costs, the impact of the demolition of the Glenwood Landing Power Plant on residents’ wallets, and tax rebates, as well as his thoughts on the changes that have taken place in the Assembly leadership. Education reform, however, dominated the discussion, with the Assemblyman, who is the ranking Republican on the Assembly Education Committee, addressing questions regarding testing, the common core and the federal-state-school district relationship.
Mr. Ra opened the forum offering his thoughts on the state budget that was passed on April 1. “There are things I like and things I don’t like,” he said. On the positive side, it was the 5th straight on-time budget and spending growth was kept under 2%. He noted that municipalities, school districts and libraries were restrained by the 2% tax cap. “We should set an example by doing the same,” he declared. On the negative side, he said, were the education proposals that were tied to the spending plan. Mr. Ra voted “no” on those reforms which will likely greatly change the way teachers are evaluated, placing more emphasis on testing and observations by “outside evaluators.”
Library Director Mike Morea thanked the Assemblyman for his efforts in working to restore state library aid.
Mr. Ra first fielded a general question concerning teacher pension costs. The Assemblyman responded that one problem with the pension system is that mandated contributions for school districts vary from year to year due to market performance, and as a result there can be spikes in what districts are required to contribute. He said that he supports a proposal that would allow school districts to create a Teacher Retirement System (TRS) Pension Reserve Fund so that when times are good, as they are this coming year when required contributions will decline by 25%, districts can put some of that savings into reserve for use in leaner years. For the state employees retirement system (ERS), which is separate from TRS, municipalities and school districts are legally permitted to establish such reserve funds.
Another resident asked how the demolition of the Glenwood Landing Power Plant was likely to impact taxpayers as National Grid’s assessment is reduced. The resident noted that a New York State law that limits to 5% the shift from one property class to another (utility to residential in this case), and a an amendment that has been renewed annually reducing that to 1%, protected taxpayers from a spike in their school taxes this year, and wondered whether it would protect residents in future years since the building has been demolished. Mr. Ra replied that he didn’t see why the law wouldn’t continue to protect those in other tax classes, to either a 5% shift- or 1% if the amendment continues to be passed each year.
Mr. Morea asked the Assemblyman to comment on the property tax rebate program the state implemented last year, and in particular the provision that libraries, municipalities and school districts, must not only keep the tax levy under the tax cap but also show that they have developed an efficiency plan in order for residents to receive a tax rebate equal to their increase in property taxes. The problem, Mr. Morea stated, is that libraries, like Gold Coast, that acted responsibly years ago by adopting practices to increase efficiency, before the tax cap law was passed, would not be able to receive credit for those practices, while libraries that only recently implemented them, would. Mr. Ra said that Gold Coast has been a model for sharing resources and agreed that the rebate program was unfair. Mr. Ra, while conceding that it was a good thing that taxpayers were getting some of their money back, said that the rebate checks are a “gimmick.” The state, he said, “is backfilling your taxes for you.” He continued that he believed that there have to be more cost efficient ways to keep the money in people’s pockets rather than rebate checks which he described as a labor intensive program in which the costs to taxpayers offset much of what people receive in rebates.
A Library Board Trustee asked Mr. Morea how much of a rebate taxpayers would receive. Mr. Morea said that it would only be about two dollars - the amount of a 2% tax increase over an entire year for the average taxpayer, who pays about $100 a year in library taxes.
Residents and Mr. Ra, devoted much of their discussion to education issues and in particular the reforms that have caused turmoil in public schooling over the past three years, as is evident by the large percentages of students refusing the ELA and Math assessments this past April. One resident complimented Mr. Ra on his “no” vote on the Governor’s teacher evaluation proposals, that will likely increase the percentage of a teacher’s rating based on student test scores, and add a new component – an observation by an “outside evaluator,” while greatly reducing local district administrators’ input in evaluating their own teachers. “Thank you for standing up for our students and public education,” she said.
Mr. Ra stated that many legislators in both the Senate and Assembly have “gone out and said the right things, but when it’s time to act, they haven’t done so. It’s been a major source of frustration.”
With regard to student’s refusing the exam, he said that the Assembly’s Education Committee has just passed a bill codifying a student’s right to do so.
With regard to the testing system itself, he said that it is flawed for many reasons – in particular, for how it does not distinguish between students, such as those who are classified as Special Education or English as a Second Language, that the Common Core standards are often developmentally inappropriate and for their use in evaluating teachers. Mr. Ra has made similar criticisms during the past year and a half at the many testing and common core forums at which he has served as a panelist.
The Assemblyman emphasized repeatedly the importance of districts having “local control” over educational decision-making repeatedly. He noted that the demographics and needs of students in different districts varied greatly, and that districts needed the flexibility to do what works best for their students. “What it boils down to,” he said, “is local control. The state is very diverse. The thought that there is one way to run things is foolish.” Referring to lower income urban districts, that have been most receptive to the reforms, Mr. Ra said, “The people who have been sold that line are not going to benefit – they are going to be hurt the most.” He pointed to flawed resources provided by the state that these districts rely on, while higher income districts can afford to purchase their own materials.
Asked what he believed to be the proper role of the different levels of Government in public schooling, Mr. Ra replied that he did not believe the federal government should have any role except to “fund certain programs and guarantee opportunities.” There is no role for the federal government in education in our Constitution.” As for the state, he said it was appropriate to set standards, “but every district has to have the flexibility to do what it needs to do to meet its population’s needs.” He continued, “A District should have the opportunity to show that it is accomplishing what the state wants it to.”
As for Charter Schools, Mr. Ra explained that they are no longer playing the role that they were supposed to play; that they drain money from public schools; and that it is impossible to compare student performance in public schools to that in charter schools. “It’s apples and oranges,” he said, asserting that charter schools can push underperforming students back into the public school system which is “required to educate all students.” When it does push out a student, he continued, the charter school keeps the public funding that had been taken from the public school. The original purpose of charter schools, he said, was to be a laboratory where new things could be tried. “They are not transparent at all,” he said. “They’re not sharing ideas.”
Mr. Ra was optimistic about the future – both with regard to education and the direction of the Assembly. The reaction against the testing and the teacher evaluation system, he said, has been having an impact, and he pointed to the recent appointment of four new Regents who are sympathetic to that point of view. As for the Assembly, he praised Carl Heastie, the new Assembly Speaker who was chosen by the Democratic Majority after Assemblyman Sheldon Silver, under indictment on federal corruption charges, stepped down from his leadership post after having held it for two decades. Mr. Ra described the new Speaker as very approachable and much more amenable than his predecessor to allowing the rank and file Assembly membership more influence.
As for the turmoil in the Senate with the recent indictment of Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Center), also on federal corruption charges, and the rise of John Flanagan (R-East Northport), chair of the Senate Education Committee, to that leadership post - those events had not occurred until after the Gold Coast forum, and so were not addressed.
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