EDITORIAL: Vote like the future depends on it

ON TUESDAY WE ADULTS get to vote on whether to tax ourselves more (or the same in New Lebanon) to educate fewer children than at any time in the last two decades. School data reveal our diminishing school age population; the census reminds us how few families in the county with school-age kids can afford an alternative to public education, assuming they’d want one.

At first glance it doesn’t add up. Fewer kids to educate should mean lower costs, but just the opposite is happening. Imagine trying to teach mathematics if you had to use school district economics as the example.

The fault doesn’t lie with the local district administrations or with the volunteers who serve on school boards. This year all six public school districts in the county have managed to stay within the guidelines of the state tax levy cap, which started out as the simple-sounding “2%  cap” but–cover your ears, children–has now edged upward toward a 5% limit for some districts. This “cap creep” recognizes that districts have long-term financial obligations, like pension contributions, over which school boards have no control.

That helps explain why the Hudson City School District is proposing a nearly 4.8% tax increase and why Chatham has a 3.6% tax hike. Anyone with a crystal ball, an advanced accounting degree and plenty of spare time can show you that after stripping away legacy costs like pensions, the increases in annual school spending, where there are any, look modest and reasonable. And all the local school boards have complied with their adjusted tax cap; they haven’t resorted to demanding that district voters override the state tax cap law with a 60% a supermajority.

Some voters will always vote No. They opt instead for a no-increase contingency budget. But a nasty surprise follows that type of protest. Failed budgets yield very small reductions in the tax rate and bring with them a whole lot more state intervention at the expense of locally elected school boards. The students bear the brunt of failed-budget austerity and taxpayers often end up paying more to repair the damage in the following years.

This year most local districts have also put a lid on the handwringing that used to accompany preparation of school budgets. Boards have made the choices they were elected to make without endlessly blaming the state. It helped that state lawmakers came up with some additional school funding late in its budget process. It is also true that the old complaints about the state not doing enough to support public schools may not be as true as some critics, like me, have suggested in the past.

In the decade between 2000 and 2010 figures from the state Education Department show that state aid for all but two school districts in Columbia County–Taconic Hills and Ichabod Crane–increased anywhere from 9% to 27%. And when you look at the aid from Albany in terms of what the state spends per pupil the aid rose to as much as 90%.

What the state pays per pupil is only going to increase here in the short term because enrollment is predicted to drop like a stone. Columbia County was the fourth oldest county in the state at last count, and a study released this week by the regional organization Hudson Valley Pattern for Progress projected that enrollment in county public schools will decrease by more than any other county in the region by the year 2020 (when fifth-graders now will graduate).

Things could change for the better but don’t hold your breath if you’re expecting the state or federal government to bail us out. There will be a limit on how much the state can spend to educate each pupil–think of it as a new type of cap, and that will make the changes we have seen until now seem minor compared to what lies ahead.

Don’t despair. We’re creative enough to find effective solutions to assure the education of our children without bankrupting ourselves in the process. But we cannot do it by voting down reasonable school budgets. We should support the type of frugal, thoughtful spending that each of the school districts in the county have placed on this year’s ballot in every district for the May 21 vote. And on May 22 we have no choice but renew the effort to re-imagine how we will adapt public education to the realities that confront us.

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