EDITORIAL: Budgets keep lid on taxes

THE WEATHER’S TOO NICE. Dandelions are multiplying by spontaneous combustion. You can’t hide from the damage done by relentless cold, but never mind that paint-less porch and tilting fence crying for repair. Step outside and don’t worry about shutting the door behind you. Sweet.
No wonder they hold school district elections in the spring. Who’s got time to go vote? It’ll be winter again before you know it. We have more important stuff to do.

Usually this annual editorial on school budgets starts by examining why one or another school boards has proposed raising taxes by a jaw-dropping multiple of the cost of living. Not anymore. Whatever you may think of Governor Andrew Cuomo, he has changed how the state handles school funding and in the process has imposed a new discipline on school spending unheard of in the modern history of this state.

Don’t take my word for it, look at the six public school districts in the county. The average increase in the tax levy–the amount the district must raise locally through the property tax–is less than 1%. Germantown, New Lebanon and Taconic Hills each has proposed no tax levy increase at all.

Under the governor’s limit on tax levy increases, commonly called the “tax cap,” school boards could have asked for approval of budgets that increased taxes by up to 2% and even slightly higher than that due to costs like pensions that are beyond the district’s control. But only two districts, Hudson and Ichabod Crane, have pressed up against that standard. And their increases are close to the annual Consumer Price Index. In other words, the school tax levy proposals on next week’s ballot are a better reflection than usual of what district taxpayers can afford.

The districts could have put much bigger budgets before voters and hoped that more than 60% of the school district electorate would approve the higher spending. Districts elsewhere have tried that trick ever since the 2% tax cap took effect. Very few had any luck convincing a supermajority of voters to go along with higher taxation.

How have school boards converted to frugality so quickly and effectively? There isn’t a single answer, but start with the loss of enrollment. There are fewer kids living here than in the past and the people who study such things say the trend will continue. Having fewer students to educate has meant downsizing staff and programs, an approach that became essential as education funding dwindled during the worst of the last recession. Remember all the teachers who were laid off?

Another part of the puzzle is that the districts are getting help from the state this year in terms of increased school aid. So while the tax levy increases are proposed to go up less than 1% countywide, proposed spending is increasing at more than three times that rate. But don’t lay the blame on the school districts. The extra aid ran from a measly $168,000 for Chatham to over $1.5 million for Taconic Hills. It’s all based on a Nutty Professor formula intended to determine need. Some of the districts also squirreled away tax money, but it will soon be gone.

Finally the governor and legislature agreed this year that if districts kept the lid on taxes and worked on sharing services and cutting costs, next year the state will help out again. That makes it sound as if Albany is treating our school boards like children, but this game has more serious implications.

Basically the governor has bought time for taxpayers and public education in the hope that the upstate economy will recover and the property tax base grow along with it. He has also given the districts fair warning that he’s serious about his plans to downsize the infrastructure of education around the state.

Mr. Cuomo offered the school districts a bargain and wisely the school boards accepted. They had no other good options.

Each district in the county has tried to balance educational needs with concern for what taxpayers can handle. Neither side of the equation stands to win much. Our school property taxes will still be too high and the budgets don’t fundamentally improve the quality of public education.

The school budget proposals on the May 20 ballot are a compromise that could lead to what the governor foresees as a leaner, more effective educational system. Voters can’t reduce costs any further by turning down this year’s budgets. But we can endorse fiscal restraint and greater efficiency if we vote yes.

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