Russ Bartlett should be celebrating. Educators and district officials in his tiny Tupper Lake community were concerned after a proposed loss of nearly $1 million in state aid meant a drastic increase in property taxes. Their fears increased when voter turnout more than doubled for the statewide school budget voting day.
Thankfully, the Tupper Lake community overwhelmingly approved the school budget — and its 7.9 percent tax levy increase.
Now the real worrying begins.
"The positive is that the budget passed by a 600-465 margin, and that did allow us to avoid losing even more positions," said Bartlett, a science teacher and president of the Tupper Lake United Teachers. "But the cost in getting the tax levy down from the original 34 percent increase was nearly 25 percent of our staff."
Nearly 30 out of 120 Tupper Lake teachers and teaching assistants are being laid off to make up for drastic losses in state aid.
With lawmakers failing to agree on a state budget, districts were forced to submit spending plans that reflected Gov. Paterson's devastating $1.4 billion in proposed education cuts. Across the state, communities approved 92 percent of school budgets.
Communities that supported their school spending plans are in situations similar to Tupper Lake — dealing with the reality of layoffs and program cuts. Statewide, more than 12,700 educators may receive pink slips.
Led by Phil Meashaw, the Broadalbin-Perth TA was able to unite citizens to approve the school budget.
The 121-vote "yes" margin was a landslide compared to other narrow budget defeats, including a five-vote loss two years ago that was never put up for a revote.
Using expertise gained from NYSUT's Local Action Project training, educators worked carefully on assembling a list of hundreds of pro-school voters.
This year's vote was a decisive 938-to-817, a record turnout for the district in a year with a double-digit tax increase.
Despite the positive vote, the district faces layoffs and larger class sizes in the elementary schools. Music instruction will be decreased and Academic Intervention Services eliminated in one program.
"Telling people what this budget meant to their kids' education was a big factor in getting out a good vote," Meashaw said.
While lawmakers are still hammering out a state budget agreement, NYSUT continues to its fight to compel elected officials to fairly fund schools and supports the creation of the $23 billion federal Education Jobs Fund. Districts could then restore programs, reduce layoffs and offer property tax relief.
"We appreciate voters' steadfast support of schools, especially given the state's fiscal situation," said NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi.
"It's wrong for taxpayers to have to increasingly shoulder the responsibility that rests with the state. It is clear that voters want quality schools, and the state can and should reverse what would be devastating cuts to education," he said.
Tax increases and drastic program cuts were among the reasons voters rejected 52 budgets, including 10 on Long Island.
Barbara Hafner, president of the West Hempstead Education Association, cited taxpayer fatigue for her district's budget defeat.
"We were the highest tax increase in Nassau County," Hafner said. Even parents with children in the schools worked against the budget. "We had to support the budget," Hafner said. We excessed teachers last year and are excessing teachers this year." A revised budget goes to voters on June 15.
Officials in several districts have adopted contingency budgets in lieu of a revote. That decision will make for another difficult year for students and educators in Rensselaer County's Troy schools.
The district is already operating under an austerity budget. "It will be a challenge to meet the state requirements, but more so, it will make putting together a schedule that does not have study halls quite difficult," said Mark Walsh, Troy TA president. The business department alone has gone from five teachers to two in two years.
The Saugerties school board adopted a contingency budget that cuts 54 jobs, along with all sports and extracurricular activities and increases the property tax levy by more than 12 percent.
"Cuts will be detrimental to students, staff, administration and our community," said Darlene Edwards, new Saugerties TA president. "Only with true collaboration will we be able to maintain the ideals of a good public education system. The hard work has just begun."