Did somebody say ‘dysfunctional’?

LISTEN, CHILDREN, AND REMEMBER this lesson: Good ideas always start at the top; those of us who pay the taxes and do the work will never be smart enough to figure out what’s best for us. That’s what government is for. Now go to sleep….

That apparently sums up the attitude of the state Department of State, according to local school officials. The school boards and administrators from the Ichabod Crane and Schodack school districts applied for a state grant last October, asking for money to study what they called “functional consolidation.” The two adjacent districts wanted to preserve their traditional identities but find ways to share services and save taxpayers some money.

The Department of State–not the Education Department–had money to fund something called the “Local Efficiencies” program. But efficiency means something different at the Capitol in Albany than it does to most folks, and the Department of State turned down the request from the districts. Local school officials said department bureaucrats thought the public wouldn’t understand the concept of functional consolidation.

Darn! If only the districts had called their proposal “Dysfunctional consolidation.” The people behind the desks at the Department of State would have known exactly what the applicants had in mind and probably would have given the districts more money than they asked for.

No one here knows what led to the denial, and it may turn out that the department simply decided to fund other applications with the money available. But the state’s failure to back a project that had a reasonable chance of success based on the record of both districts in cutting costs highlights a gross failure of imagination and leadership in the midst of a genuine crisis.

Like their counterparts in almost every other district around the state, Ichabod Crane Central (ICC) officials have already started preparing for staff and program cuts that will follow adoption of the state budget for 2010-11. The state’s budget deficit is so large that even the federal economic stimulus package is unlikely to cushion the impact. And the pain caused by the disruptive cuts that districts must make will be compounded, because the cuts will not prevent school taxes from rising.

It won’t surprise anyone who pays property taxes that school taxes continue to grow not only in dollars but as a percentage of the total property tax bills we all pay. The state comptroller reports that in 1992, school taxes comprised less than 50% of the total property tax levy statewide; by 2007, the portion of our property taxes going to schools was nudging 65%. And the trend points to an even greater share for education in the future. At that rate, a few years from now the state will have to switch summer vacation to January and February, because towns and counties won’t have any money to plow the roads for kids to get to school in the winter.

So why can’t the state find a way to encourage two school districts that want help figuring out practical ways to cut costs? Maybe it has to do with the radical concept of two separate school districts volunteering to cooperate across their boundaries and across a county line (ICC is in Columbia County, Schodack in Rensselaer). That’s a subversive concept in this state, which has long prided itself on its adherence to the principle of home rule. And here state government doesn’t deserve all the blame.

This state currently has 3,343 local government entities authorized to impose property taxes, everything from towns and villages to school, fire and library districts. No wonder property taxes rose 350% between 1982 and 2007. And again, the trend continues to head upward, meaning we’ll continue to pay more unless we stem the tide of “entity-creep,” which is precisely what the proposal from ICC and Schodack hoped to accomplish.

The school officials who drafted the grant application for functional consolidation used that clunky term for good reason. They wanted to reassure residents and taxpayers that neither school district would disappear. And it’s possible the bureaucrats at the Department of State simply couldn’t grasp the subtleties of that approach.

Whatever the reason, the rejection of the grant application was misguided, and the absence of an explanation for the decision was a mark of arrogance, ineptitude or both. But it does put the whole mess in perspective.

There’s no reason anymore to pussyfoot around the necessity for school districts to merge. That has to happen. But school districts will find better ways to accomplish that goal than any state agency ever can. The appropriate role for state government, then, is to support local efforts that hasten consolidation, which is exactly what the state Department of State failed to do.

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