EDITORIAL: What will you do Tuesday?

What are you doing Tuesday… before the final episode of Game of Thrones is rerun? The date is May 21, so maybe you were thinking about gardening or mowing the three-foot-tall dandelion patch that used to be a lawn.

Forget about that. Long range forecast says it’ll still be raining. So could I interest you in an indoor activity? It won’t take long and it doesn’t cost anything… that day. You’ll might meet old friends or not, but either way you’ll have made a measurable contribution to protecting the right we have to govern ourselves, also known as voting.

In this case the vote is for a school district budget, most likely one of the six districts located in Columbia County: Chatham, Germantown, Hudson, Ichabod Crane, New Lebanon or Taconic Hills. (There are a few folks at opposite ends of the county who live within the boundaries of neighboring counties’ school districts; this applies to them, too.) Wherever you live, it should be a no-brainer that you’ll turn out next week to decide the fate of multi-million-dollar budgets and choose members of your school board to oversee your district’s finances. After all, the school district tax makes up the largest part of your property tax bill.

But wait. It’s better that anyone who looks at school budgets only in terms of the tax burden should stay home on school election day. Voting means that you recognize that we all share a social obligation to educate the community’s children. And it turns out that our public school districts have been doing a pretty good job. The federal Census Bureau’s latest estimates are that over 89% of people age 25 and older in this county have at least a high school diploma. The national average is only 87% and the state is a percentage point lower than that.

It does take a lot of money from local taxpayers and taxpayers statewide to educate the kids of this county. If voters adopt the budgets proposed by the six districts in the county next week, the total tab will be $189 million in round numbers. For the next school year in September that would come to $3,157.16 for every man, woman and child living here now. Although that’s not how it’s divided up, it’s still a bargain.

Consider another institution in the county supported with major expenditures of public funds: Columbia-Greene Community College. If our schools don’t have the funds to educate our kids, the college will have to spend more than it already does to overcome learning deficits. That leaves less for teaching advanced skills and practices that C-GCC students need.

It’s not as if the schools are careless with our money. The law makes that impossible as a practical matter. The state limits the annual increase in funds each district extracts from its taxpayers. It’s called a “2% cap,” which is a misleading term because the amount is determined by a numbingly complicated formula that only a scrum of Education Department bureaucrats could cook up. But it has had the intended effect of keeping the lid on budget creep. Sadly, the scars from years of cuts are beginning to show, as districts have little choice but to drop course offerings. Eventually that must stop.

It’s possible that bad guys might swindle a school district… if no one is watching. Voting is one way to let officials and crooks know the public is paying attention.

There’s a lot to know about school budgets. But the most important fact is that there are about 10,500 people under the age of 18 in Columbia County these days. Most of them are in school or soon will be. Our budget votes play a part in determining what type of citizens they will become. In that sense, they are our responsibility.

Funding public schools has always required a direct local contribution. The federal government plays much smaller role. But this year President Trump proposed a $7.1-billion cut in funding to the Department of Education programs like teacher development. The president and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVoss also want $500 million more for federal charter school grants. Help is unlikely to come from Washington anytime soon.

There’s a chart on Page 9 with budget ballot facts for school districts in the county. You can check your district’s website too. Or just go to your polling site Tuesday, May 21 and vote, not only because it’s a citizen’s duty but because our public schools are institutions where truth matters. We have no future without them.

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