WHAT IF YOU could vote next week to sustain a $180-million industry that spends almost all of its money in Columbia County. Your first reaction: No way. Right? Second reaction: Waaaaait a minute… Whose money is this?
Well, some of it’s ours. A lot of it, actually. It’s the total of the proposed annual operating budgets for the six public school districts in the county. And each of those budgets goes before voters Tuesday, May 17. Over $105-million of the total comes from property taxes. That’s money taxpayers pump into the local economy to pay for the schools that pump knowledge and skills into the next generation. That’s a lot of pumping to pay for.
The balance of the cost of education comes primarily from state aid. That’s our money too; most people who own property also pay state income tax and everybody pays some state sales tax. More than $73 million in school aid will come back to the county from the state in the school year ahead.
All the school districts in the county received increased amounts of state aid this year except the Hudson City School District. That district was getting an outsized share of aid because it had low graduation rates and other signs of academic stress. But by this year Hudson had made so much progress that it was no longer considered worthy of state “focus.” And with flawless logic the state rewarded Hudson by cutting its funds.
Then there’s the 2% state tax cap, known in local government circles as the “2%” tax cap that’s never 2%.” The cap law says that local governments, including school districts, cannot raise the tax levy by more than 2% or the Consumer Price Index… whichever is lower. This year the state rate of inflation is calculated to be 0.12%–essentially nothing. But then there are the exemptions. This is New York State, after all. It wouldn’t be a law if it wasn’t complicated.
For all the misgivings about the tax cap, it has imposed some fiscal discipline on school district spending and it hasn’t destroyed public education. School districts in the county have done their part by complying with the cap and not begging voters to give them the 60% supermajority approval needed to spend more than the cap allows.
The average proposed increase in the tax levy countywide is 1% for the next school year. This frugal behavior by school boards will probably last as long as the state continues to increase school aid payments and inflation remains at bay. So for the moment the big tax increases that used to motivate voters to defeat school budgets have been squelched.
Plenty of challenges remain. Enrollment continues to decline. The state has slightly modified its approach to high stakes testing and eliminated, for the moment, the connection between student test scores and teacher evaluations. but the underlying issues continue to simmer.
Meantime, as our schools deploy expensive technology that offers learning opportunities never before imagined they also face threats to our children that nobody knows how to control. Cyber safety is taught in primary grades and at least two districts in the county are adding sociologists to their staff to help students and families cope. Learning happens. Students thrive. But the tools don’t necessarily make teaching any easier.
One noticeable change in the districts throughout the county is their progress making information available to the public. All the districts have put budget information online and, in some cases, have also supplied facts about, or statements from, candidates for board seats. There’s plenty of room for improvement but their moves toward greater transparency are welcome. Communicating with the public digitally can no longer be an afterthought.
The boards and administrators of all six public school districts in Columbia County–Chatham, Germantown, Hudson, Ichabod Crane, New Lebanon and Taconic Hills–have drafted budgets that address the needs of students and the concerns of taxpayers. This Tuesday it’s time for voters to sacrifice the minutes it takes to go to the polls, approve the budget and pick the volunteers willing to give up their time to oversee school district finances and policy as members of the school board.
Write it on your calendar, enter it in your phone, put a sticky-note on the fridge. May 17. Don’t think of it as a chore or annoyance. Consider it your contribution to a sustainable economy in the county where we live.