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New Rochelle Schools Implement "User Tax" on Cash Strapped Parents

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New Rochelle Schools Implement "User Tax" on Cash Strapped Parents

August 31, 2008 - 18:10
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What began as a way for teachers to apprise students of what supplies they would need for the upcoming school year has morphed into what amounts to a hidden, regressive "user tax" presented under the guise of "community supplies". Gone are the days when parents bought notebooks and pencils for their child along with new shoes and a lunch box. Parents are now expected to collectively pay hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to provide supplies such as cleaning fluid, paper towels, pencils and paper and the deliver them, no questions asked, to schools with no system in place to track inventory or prevent theft.

Through the "community supplies" list, parents are being charged fees to send their children to public schools to receive what is supposedly a FREE education. For students with disabilities, roughly 10% of the school age population in New Rochelle, these "user taxes" and "fees" are a violation of the students right to a Free and Appropriate Education as managed by Section 504 of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. For economically disadvantaged parents the cost are simply insurmountable. For struggling middle-income families with more than one child in elementary schools the costs now run into hundreds of dollars.

The New York Times highlight the growing trends in our nation's schoools and the parent backlash

As school districts both poor and prosperous struggle to finance such basics as teacher salaries, utilities, building maintenance and textbooks, many are asking parents to purchase more — and more particular — school supplies. Gone are the days when back-to-school shopping meant making sure each child had new shoes and a three-ring binder. Now, according to the New York State School Boards Association, supplies run an average of $100 for high school students and $60 for middle schoolers.

As parents have begun to rebel, some districts around the country have put in place caps to prevent building principals from loading up "community supply" lists with odd items, random goodies and items that the district should supply itself such as cleaning supplies.

Despite a school budget exceeding $200 mm, New Rochelle schools recently sent parents a school supply lists. Unlike in past years, the vast majority of the items fall under the heading of "community supplies". Parents are now expected to provide for the needs of all students not just their own. While painful at the individual level, when the costs are applied across the District to every student, the total cost to parents is now over half a million dollars. And that is just for the first day of school; there will be more requests for cash and goods later in the form of additional supply requests, project fees, field trips and so forth.

As an example, the Barnard School supplies list was recently sent to parents and includes the following "community suppllies" items. Based on prices obtained from sources such as Staples.com and Buy.com, and excluding shipping costs, the total cost to parents breaks down as follows:

Community Supplies List - Barnard School

4 x Box of #2 Pencils ($3.49) = $13.96

3 x Large Pink Eraser ($7.29) = $21.87

1 x Crayola Markers (thick) ($3.79) = $3.79

1 x Crayloa Markers (thin) ($3.79) = $3.79

1 x Colored Pencils($2.79) = $2.79

1 x Crayola Crayons ($1.43) = $1.43

2 x 4 Glue Sticks ($1.99) = $3.98

1 x Elmer's Glue ($2.29) = $2.29

2 x Box of Tissues ($3.99) = $7.98

2 x Paper Towel Rolls($3.49) = $6.98

1 x White Copy Paper ($4.99) = $4.99

2 x Ziploc Storage Bag ($6.59) = $6.59

1 x Spray Cleaner($7.29) = $7.29

1 x Box of Crackers ($5.70) = $5.70

The sub-total is $93.43

With an 8/14% sales tax is $7.71

The total cost is $101.14 per student

Each school sends out different lists and the actual number of students enrolled as each elementary school changes all the time, but when we apply the $101.14 cost across the student population of those schools as of the 2006-2007 school based on the recently released New York State report cards we start to get a sense of the kinds of dollar figures involved.

Total Enrollment x community supplies cost = total supplies per school

source: 2006-2007 state report card data

Barnard = 281 x $101.14 = $28,420

Columbus = 765 x $101.14 = $77,321

Webster = 458 x $101.14 = $46,322

Davis = 630 x $101.14 = $63,718

Jefferson = 527 x $101.14 = $53,300

Trinity = 845 x $101.14 = $85,463

Ward = 1122 x $101.14 = $113,479

The total cost to parents across the District is $468,023

At Barnard there is also a "Special Projects" Fund which parents are asked to pay $10 per student.

Total Enrollment x "special projects" cost = total "special projects" cost per school

Barnard = 281 x $10 = $2,810

Columbus = 765 x $10 = $7,650

Webster = 458 x $10 = $4,580

Davis = 630 x $10 = $6,300

Jefferson = 527 x $10 = $5,270

Trinity = 845 x $10 = $8,450

Ward = 1122 x $10 = $11,220

The total cost to parents across the District is $46,280

Combined the "user tax" charged by the District amounts to $514,303.

Now, not every school has such a list or has the exact same items on the list and it is certainly possible that some of these items might be purchased on sale so some costs might be lower. Even for adjusting for these factors it is clear that the "supplies" list has been transformed into a hidden tax through which parents are charged hundreds of thousands of dollars in order to send their kids to a public school for a supposedly "free" education. Some supplies such as cleaning spray, paper towels and photocopier paper are clearly District responsibilities.

Particularly troubling is the lack accountability. There appears to be a significant amount of money sloshing around the school system in the form of supplies based on requests that appear to be incredibly excessive. Does Barnard School REALLY need 281 bottles of cleaning spray or nearly 3,000 glue sticks or over 10,000 crayons, pencils and markers? Applied across all the elementary schools we're talking about hundreds of thousands of items - if not millions - that are readily boxed up and sold off the backs of trucks in the South Bronx. Is there accounting for these supplies? Parents can only wonder what happens to unused supplies at the end of the year.

There also appears to be a tremendous amount of waste, forcing parents to pay retail prices when the District could make the same purchases in bulk, paying wholesale prices. The potential savings amounts to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Of course, from the perspective of the District forcing parents to pay $500,000 for supplies is free to them while the District buying those same supplies for $200,000 costs the District $200,000. For school officials the choice is obvious - and the parents are the losers.

Further waste comes in the form of sales tax paid by parents on these items. The District is a non-profit organization and does not pay sales tax. Parents, on the other hand, pay the full sales tax. The $514,303 includes almost $40,000 in sales tax which is about 50% more than what The Barnard School alone is requiring parents to pay to supply the school.

The copier paper is particularly absurd. Any parent in the District can tell you they are deluged with paper each week by the District in a community where well over 90% of parents have email accounts either through work, home or on their cell phone. The vast majority of paper sent home to parents that could be sent for free via the Internet. Every school in the District has its own web site and every teacher now has their own "blog" site within the school site. The same effort that goes into typing up a flyer could be used to publish that information to the school web site, the teacher blog,the associated RSS feeds and sent by email. In fact, less effort since there is no need to deal with printing copies, collating them, putting them in student's folders and putting new supplies of paper and expensive ink into the printer. For the less than 10% of parents that do not have email, paper distribution could still be used as it is now at 10% of the cost.

There is also a significant "inequity" issue involved. If not all parents can afford to pay for "community" supplies, are elementary schools in more affluent parts of the District flush with supplies while schools with a large percentage of lower-income families going with out? Are students from families that are able to buy supplies treated differently than those students who are unable to meet these new requirements? Looking at it the other way around, should parents in middle and upper income families, already paying some of the highest school taxes in the United States, be forced to pay for the school supplies for lower income students?

The most despicable aspect of this policy is the line of attack used by the District to silence critics. If you dare to raise these types of concerns you will be branded as "ungrateful", "selfish" or someone who doesn't care about children. Critics are sure to hear sob stories about teachers having to reach into their own pockets to pay for supplies or to disadvantaged youth forced to go with it.

Unable to explain or justify this backdoor, highly regressive, hidden school tax, the District and its apologists must resort to hiding behind young children or school teachers, both of whom are the victims here, as their only hope for deflecting criticism. The issue here is not whether parents love their children or whether families want to contribute to the community or whether students and parents respect school teachers. They are just pawns. The issue here is the District seeking to dump a half million dollars or more in costs on parents to avoid its responsibility to pay those costs; something it could do through bulk purchases at at a fraction of what parents are expect to pay.

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