In many ways, the Ossining school district in New York might look like a school business administrator’s worst nightmare: The state has frozen important funding to the district while capping taxes; the district is swelling with more low-income students; and voters have to approve its budget every year.
But for Alita McCoy Zuber, the situation was a way for her to realize a dream.
“The school I went to was in the Bronx, and not the greatest area in the Bronx,” said Ms. Zuber, the assistant superintendent for business in the Ossining district. “I wanted to pursue school business administration … and find ways to save money so that there’s more money for students in a classroom for them to get a good education.”
In her job as the district’s top business official, Ms. Zuber, 43, deals in the world of school finance, handling everything from payroll to budgeting to insurance.
It’s a world filled with jargon and complicated calculations, and one many people would prefer to avoid thinking about. But it’s Ms. Zuber’s job not only to get people thinking about school finance, but also to educate them on it. And it’s her teaching style and communication skills that have won her fans across the 4,800-student district.
“That’s Alita at her best—building a story around what we need to do and articulating it in a very transparent way to our community,” said Raymond Sanchez, Ossining’s superintendent.
For example, the governor and the legislature, in an effort to deal with soaring property taxes, capped them at 2 percent in 2011, or so Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the news media kept saying. In reality, the cap is determined through a complicated formula that can actually exceed 2 percent, as is the case for Ossining, but because of the messaging coming out of the state capital, many local residents thought the district wasn’t allowed to raise the tax levy above the 2 percent level.
To combat that confusion, Ms. Zuber developed something called the “Five Fast Facts,” which broke down the complicated property-tax formula into bite-size pieces, but not so many pieces that people wouldn’t be able to remember them all. The idea, Ms. Zuber said, was to create something that was not only easy for people to understand, but also easy for them to explain to others.
“I used the hand in the PowerPoint [presentation], a hand that represents the five fingers and the five facts” to create an accessible, memorable visual, she said. “And when I saw people in the community, they would put their hand[s] up and show me the five.”
She also persuaded voters to pass a $40 million bond for school renovations in February 2012, when they had rejected a $70 million bond a year earlier, just before Ms. Zuber’s arrival.
For the new bond request, Ms. Zuber cut out what she said some people perceived as frill and then focused on selling the practical aspects of the bond, such as new and more efficient boilers to save on energy costs, instead of the spending plans that made the last bond contentious: expanding classroom space to accommodate Ossining’s growing student population.
With state aid set aside for building projects, Ms. Zuber was able to offset the interest on the bond, and the district was also borrowing at a time other bonds were being paid off, so there was no impact on the tax levy.
One of the more challenging budget issues Ossining faces stems from special state funding for K-12, called foundation aid, that is supposed to funnel money to districts based on the number of students who are English-language learners, are low-income, or who have disabilities. State lawmakers were forced to set up the foundation-aid formula as part of a remedy to a school-funding-equity lawsuit that the New York Court of Appeals—the state’s highest court—ordered.
Just two years after enacting the new formula, and at the height of the Great Recession, the state froze the foundation-aid funding at 2008-09 levels, where it remains. Meanwhile, the Ossining district saw its numbers of English-learners, poor students, and those with special needs increase.
In fall 2013, Ms. Zuber ran the numbers and calculated that Ossining was being shorted millions of dollars because the formula wasn’t adjusting to the district’s growing needs. Meanwhile, districts with shrinking populations were receiving more money than they needed under the formula.
“There were districts like us that are significantly underfunded to the tune of $40 million,” Ms. Zuber said.
She organized a panel discussion for the Ossining community, inviting lawyers from the original school funding lawsuit to explain what was happening. Four hundred people attended. The district also created a page on its website to provide information on the issue and started a petition asking state lawmakers to unfreeze the funding.
Ms. Zuber took her findings to the Capitol in Albany with Superintendent Sanchez to testify before lawmakers on how the foundation-aid situation was hurting districts like Ossining. Although the state has yet to alter the aid formula, Ms. Zuber said the community has started advocating on behalf of the schools. More than 1,000 people signed the petition. “We inundated legislators with phone calls and emails,” she said.
Carving Out Savings
The same demographic changes that are knocking the district out of alignment with the foundation aid have brought other challenges. Ossining has seen an influx of immigrant families from Latin America—many from Ecuador—move into the community in recent years. While the district’s student population has shifted to majority-minority, many immigrant parents can’t vote on the district’s budget.
“On some level, you’re relying on a smaller pool of individuals to vote for the school district budget, so that adds a layer of complexity to the work,” said Mr. Sanchez, who notes that some of those voters aren’t attuned to the needs of a changing student population. For example, they may not understand that funding allocated in the budget for services for English-language learners is not an option—it’s mandated.
It’s been up to Ms. Zuber to help Ossining’s core group of voters understand those issues.
I wanted to pursue school business administration … and find ways to save money so that there’s more money for students in a classroom for them to get a good education.
She has met with senior citizen groups and local unions to explain the district’s expenditures and its revenue situation. She and Mr. Sanchez have even taken time to meet with a small number of people one-on-one at their request to review the 100-page district budget line by line.
Her results can be measured in votes, said Bill Kress, the president of Ossining’s school board. “I believe [in 2014] we had somewhere around 70 percent of people voting in favor of the budget,” he said. “We used to be thrilled if we could get 55 percent.”
But Ms. Zuber also has been working simultaneously to carve out savings within the district by consolidating bus routes and changing employees’ health-insurance plan. She even tackled some traditions to save money, including relocating the high school graduation ceremony, which used to be held outside in a tent and required district staff to stand guard overnight before the ceremony.
“The local community was fighting me tooth and nail,” Ms. Zuber recalled. “I thought it wouldn’t be a big deal, but they thought it was a tradition.”
She said she won them over with a new space that was larger, air-conditioned, and protected from inclement weather.
All those things, Mr. Sanchez points out, have helped keep the budget scalpel from reaching the classroom.
Protecting classrooms is Ms. Zuber’s top priority—something she says comes from a personal place. Her own upbringing in a poor neighborhood in the Bronx borough of New York City connects her to Ossining students who have the odds stacked against them. Ms. Zuber graduated from New York City’s public schools.
“I saw a lot of my people in my age group become victims of the environment; some became addicted to drugs, some were killed,” so, Ms. Zuber said, she buried herself in schoolwork and looked to positive examples of African-American people succeeding for inspiration, including the characters on “The Cosby Show,” and her grandfather, who was a civil engineer.
But it wasn’t until she was in college and read Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools, the Jonathan Kozol book that exposed dramatic disparities in the quality of education between rich and poor communities, that she realized her calling was to be a business administrator in a diverse school district.
“It just inspires me to want to do the best that we can, and be as creative as I can,” she said, “to provide the best education from a financial perspective as possible.”
CORRECTION: This story has been corrected to explain that Ossining school district staff were paid to stand guard overnight to protect an outdoor graduation ceremony site. It also clarifies Ms. Zuber’s position on a failed school bond measure.