EDITORIAL: Kids need your vote

RELAX, IT’S ONLY $187 MILLION. If voters in the six school districts headquartered in Columbia County approve the annual budgets for their local district, that’s what we’ll be spending to educate our kids over the next school year.

That amount accounts for the combined operating budgets of the districts. To get a better picture of the full economic importance of schools, look at the propositions on the ballots for capital improvements and school buses, etc. That adds a few million more, and though these capital costs are spread out over many years, this type of school spending nudges the total over $200 million annually.

This is real money, but oddly, it gets only modest attention now, as the budget making process is about to conclude. Next Tuesday, May 15, all voters registered in Columbia County can help determine whether their local school district is doing a good job managing the money we give it. By contrast, we shake our heads, pound the table and say unpleasant things when we open our school tax bills in the fall. By then it’s too late to do anything about it.

But what, exactly, should we be doing? Years ago Governor Cuomo and the state legislature adopted what’s sometimes called the 2% Tax Cap law. With exceptions that allow for tax increases slightly higher than 2%, this law has kept the lid on big hikes in local spending.

The increases by the six local districts average 2.4% in the upcoming budget proposals. New Lebanon proposes no increase at all.

The latest Consumer Price Index from the U.S. Department of Labor shows inflation running at about 2.1% in the Northeast, which might explain why this has been a quiet school budget season. There’s that and the extra millions of dollars state lawmakers and Governor Cuomo allocated to public schools in the state budget in this election year.

The districts’ frugality suggests that the people who run our schools–administrators and the board members who govern them–are handling our money very carefully. It’s not just about the money, but the statistics from recent years show that academically our public schools perform well, too. The biggest threat to this good news would be the expectation that the progress will continue without vigorous public engagement.

We’ve got 18 people countywide willing to serve or serve again as school board members. There are contested races in three of the six districts. If you know a school board candidate in your community, thank that person; this volunteer job requires long hours with little reward except the satisfaction you get from public service. Then show that you mean it by taking the time to vote.

At the polls be sure to check the ballot propositions–all districts but New Lebanon have spending proposals this year. These items often involve capital improvements (Chatham and Taconic Hills), vehicle purchases (Ichabod Crane) or financial housekeeping that anticipates future needs. We’re all partners in the properties we call schools, and these proposals are carefully crafted to fix what’s broken and keep our schools as up to date as possible with care taken to limit the financial impact on taxpayers.

This year the main capital improvement projects proposed are necessary and well thought out with one exception, Proposition 3 in the Chatham district for $1.2-million network of video cameras in all buildings. The district has not made a convincing case that this technology will, as claimed, make students safer.

Safety is a goal shared by all reasonable people. But assurances that all the images recorded by these cameras will do that and the rest will be deleted are promises at odds with the reality of a digital world.

It may be that the behavior of Chatham students is so threatening that the only way to address it is with a reliance on electronic surveillance. But that would say more about the shortcomings of school policies than the alleged bad behavior of students. More data won’t fix that failure to communicate.

This surveillance component of the Chatham capital project is an overreach. If there are parts of school property that require special attention–perhaps where the buses are parked–then that makes sense. But the district could do that with less intrusive and expensive technology. Chatham voters should vote No on Proposition 3.

Otherwise vote Yes on the school budgets and ballot propositions in whichever school district–including Chatham–you live in. Act like the future depends on how well we educate our kids… because it does.

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