WEST HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. – Bill Signorile has regularly attended West Hempstead school board meetings for the past two years, in hopes of getting board members to curb the district’s spending.
He says the board’s big-spending habits, particularly when it comes to union labor costs, are jeopardizing the financial futures of taxpayers and younger school employees, and threatening the quality of instruction for students.
During that same period, the West Hempstead Union Free School District’s budget has increased by 56.7 percent – from $34.7 million to $54.4 million – even while enrollment has dropped by 200 students.
Signorile says “runaway” taxes make it difficult for him to keep his home or send his children to college, while the ballooning school budget puts the jobs and pensions of district employees at risk.
New York’s Education Commissioner John King echoed those concerns at a budget hearing last week. King told state lawmakers that a number of school districts are facing insolvency over the next few years, according to TimesUnion.com.
In an interview with EAG, Signorile estimated that over half of West Hempstead’s commercial property sits vacant. That leaves the average homeowner – whose income has mostly flat lined in recent years – to shoulder more of the tax burden.
West Hempstead is located in New York’s Nassau County which has the highest median property taxes in the nation, reports CBS 880.
“That means the community has to come up with the money to pay the ever increasing school costs,” he said. “Does everybody want the train to crash?”
Signorile shared his concerns at a school board meeting last summer, in hopes of waking district officials up to the possibility of a serious financial calamity in the near future.
“I told them, ‘Let’s freeze everything for five years and let the economy come back,'” he said.
Signorile was shocked by the response he received.
“A retired teacher told me, ‘If you can’t afford to pay the taxes, you shouldn’t live here.'”
That response not only revealed the selfish attitude of the local teachers union to Signorile, but it also inspired him to run for the school board this coming spring.
“I’m getting involved,” he said.
Teachers union caused much of the mess
Signorile worked for 13 years as a New York City firefighter and is proudly pro-union. Those sentiments initially made him a strong supporter of teachers unions, but not any longer.
He said he was turned off by the union’s selfish behavior during the most recent contract negotiations, which spanned two years.
Even though a state-appointed fact finder determined “the district’s financial woes are significant,” the West Hempstead Education Association managed to gain school board approval for a new contract last spring which included pay raises – 2 percent for 2011-12 and 1.75 percent for 2012-13.
The WHEA did agree to forego other types of bonuses – for longevity and continuing their education – concessions the union president characterized as “a major sacrifice.”
Signorile was not impressed.
“How do they expect me to keep giving them more money?” he asked, noting that student achievement has stagnated over the past few years.
“If the kids’ grades are jumping up, people wouldn’t have much problem with the pay raise,” he said.
Equally appalling to Signorile is the fact that a number of young, less senior teachers have been laid off since 2008, even while the union keeps demanding more at the bargaining table.
“A union’s job is not to demand an increase in salary if it results in your brethren getting laid off,” he said. “There’s a lot of self-serving going on. They don’t even care about their fellow members.
“It’s IGM – I got mine.”
‘This is a story that is consistent across New York State’
Richard Cunningham, deputy superintendent for West Hempstead schools, understands Signorile’s concerns about taxes, but says the situation is not unique to the district.
“This is a story that is consistent across New York State,” Cunningham wrote in an email to EAG.
Like many New York school districts, Cunningham said West Hempstead is faced with higher employee pension costs, more state mandates over special education services, and the costs of transporting West Hempstead students to private schools.
He believes the district is taking a balanced approach to controlling its financial problems.
“There are many people working very hard in West Hempstead to continue to improve education and find ways to stem tax growth,” Cunningham wrote.
He added that “total budget growth … since July 1, 2009 equals 3.39 percent” and the union’s “salary schedules are among the lowest percentile” in New York’s Nassau County.
Signorile remains very skeptical.
“I’m at a loss to explain wage and benefit increases during a deflationary period,” he said, a reference to his days as a stock market forecaster.
Signorile believes West Hempstead students stand to lose the most – fewer teachers and reduced academic and extracurricular offerings – if the district doesn’t make serious changes to its budget, particularly labor costs.
“The boat is taking on water,” he warns, “and most people are oblivious to it.”