WHY IS IT that voters say they care about what government does with their money but so many are no-shows when they have a chance to influence where their money goes? Lots of smart people have tried to explain this phenomenon, but we have yet to hear a plausible reason for the most glaring example of this disconnect: school budget elections.
More than a decade ago state lawmakers mandated that all public school districts outside of major cities hold their annual budget vote and the election of school board members on the same day statewide. This year that date is this Tuesday, May 19, and all six public school districts in the county are asking voters for approval of relatively modest spending proposals, with tax levies—the amounts to be raised by property taxes—rising between one-and-a-half and four percent (except in New Lebanon, where the levy would not rise at all). See our chart on Page 7.
School funding accounts for the largest part of property tax bills; and since most voters in the county own their homes, this tax affects them directly, regardless of their ability to pay. Based on an unscientific survey of the local grousing index, it doesn’t sound like voter apathy over school budgets stems from a lack of awareness of the tax bite.
Maybe it has to do with fatalism. After all, the cost for running a school district is largely determined long before school boards and administrators thrash out the details of the proposed budget. Labor costs make up the largest part of every district’s operating budget. Districts that negotiated multi-year contracts with employees before the economy tanked now have to abide by the terms of those agreements, including scheduled raises, unless they can convince employees to make sacrifices. The icy reception that teachers gave an idea floated recently by the Taconic Hills superintendent for a major cutback in pension benefits gave a hint of the prospects for the sacrifice argument.
Add to that the increase in healthcare costs, with premiums rising while insurance companies slash benefits, and it quickly becomes clear why a voter might conclude that voting on the school budget is futile: Even if residents defeat a budget, the underlying obligations remain, so the taxpayer takes a hit no matter what happens.
But voters can have an impact this year because times have changed. Late last year and early in 2009, local school officials predicted catastrophe because the governor, facing a multibillion state deficit, proposed cutting $700 million in state aid to schools. A cut that size would have undercut the quality of education, and school boards around the county began to prepare for the worst. Then Congress passed President Obama’s economic stimulus package. When the final state aid figures were released, every local district not only avoided a cut, each of the districts actually received an increase in funding thanks to the influx of new federal aid.
The money from this stimulus package will dry up in less than two years, and at that point districts may find themselves right back where they were a few months ago, facing huge budget gaps that can only be resolved by cuts that compromise the mission of the public school system. The only way that schools and their communities can avoid this is if the districts begin right away to step up plans to trim costs and use services much more efficiently in anticipation of a bleak financial future.
Why, for instance, does the Ichabod Crane District use energy so much more efficiently than all other local districts? How can the others catch up? For that matter, why do we need six separate administrations in a county of 63,000 people, when enrollment has dwindled at most schools?
The six local boards of education have to answer those questions and more very quickly. But it will hamper their ability to face this challenge if the message they receive from the electorate Tuesday is that voters have no patience for their efforts to address costs over which they have little control. The better, more productive approach would be for every eligible voter to cast a ballot, shocking the boards into the awareness that this year’s incremental efforts must only be a prelude to more substantive changes ahead. And a whole lot of people are watching.