EDITORIAL: Opt in to school district vote

YOU KNOW WHAT HAPPENS NEXT TUESDAY. No? It’s that day of the year when a relatively small group of people–some we thought were our friends–determines the fate of the largest slice of our property tax bill.

Tuesday, May 19 is when public school districts in this state hold their annual budget referendums and school board trustee elections. Turnout is often quite low, which sounds crazy when it’s an election that gives voters a rare chance to have anything like direct control over the cost of government.

Maybe it shouldn’t come as news that school elections seldom generate much interest. Undoubtedly some voters feel too busy, tired, uniformed or wedded to their screen-world to participate. And some may have made a rational choice: Why participate now that state law caps increases in the tax levy at 2%? Good point, except that the election involves much more than the levy.

Our school districts have learned to live with a less generous state government. School boards have held the line on spending. This year all six districts in Columbia County have met the tax cap requirement (which can slightly exceed 2% for certain exceptions). The average rate of increase countywide this year is a little over 1%, with New Lebanon and Taconic Hills proposing no tax increase at all. We know our money’s in good hands.

This year the situation is different because of what’s happening in Albany. The legislature and Governor Cuomo belatedly agreed on what was a large increase in state aid to education, and that relieved some of the pressure on the property tax and made it easier for school boards to avoid cutting teachers or programs. But the additional state money this year comes from a one-time settlement with big banks fined for fleecing their customers. Where the state will get the additional money next year for schools to replace this year’s the bank fines windfall is anybody’s guess.

The generosity of the state budget in terms of school funding came with some heavy-handed political strings. Governor Cuomo agreed to the increase only if the legislature required schools to measure the performance of teachers using the scores of their students on standardized tests. Under the plan, the test scores would become the largest single factor in evaluating whether teachers should keep their jobs.
The standardized tests used in the evaluations are the ones based on the Common Core curriculum, which was grossly mismanaged by the state Education Department when it was introduced a few years ago and remains deeply mistrusted and misunderstood. And so far there is no workable plan in sight for repairing the damage already done let alone improving public education.

The governor’s victory in the budget battle has given the school districts and us taxpayers no more than a short-term breather. It has also enabled the governor to pursue his failed testing policy, which has already led to a virtual revolt. Parents were so opposed to the most recent round of standardized tests that 68% of students in grades three through eight in the Ichabod Crane Central School District did not take the exams. There was significant resistance in other districts as well.

That level of dissatisfaction with the tests makes the results useless for evaluating teachers.
The wasted time and the threat of lost opportunities to educate our children are budget matters just as urgent as keeping the lid on taxes. These tests and teacher evaluations come with costs foisted on the districts. And that points to another reason for voters to turn out in support of school district budgets this year. The budget vote is a platform to send the governor a message.

School boards and local school administrators did not dream up these new, standardized tests and evaluations. They didn’t recruit a multi-national publishing company to sell the state new standardized exams or the curriculum materials to support them. The schools are not the problem here.

The state Education Department has said that school districts that have too few students taking the standardized tests could be penalized with the loss of state funding. That’s an outrageous form of coercion, especially considering that the state created this mess and now wants to blame the schools while punishing taxpayers and children.

This year’s school budgets in Columbia County are likely to pass regardless of turnout. But the governor should know that we support our schools and we don’t like being threatened.

A big turnout can help make that statement. Please vote Yes Tuesday in your school district’s election.

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