Tax cap would cripple N.Y.'s school districts
By Richard C. Iannuzzi
Teachers are taxpayers, too. They bear the same property tax burden as other middle-class homeowners. It's hardly surprising that the vast majority of New Yorkers, stressed by budget deficits and a bad economy, favor capping local property taxes.
Yet, year after year, the same opinion polls also show New Yorkers strongly oppose cutting education funding. They still want to protect their prized local schools and perhaps do not fully appreciate the devastating impact an ill-conceived tax cap plan would have on education.
Certainly, the misguided members of the state Senate who voted last week for a devastating tax cap don't understand what working New Yorkers really want and need. Homeowners want real relief, while maintaining sound educational programs. What they got from the Senate was a lot of bravado, but no real relief and the potential to dismantle the excellent educational opportunities that support the property values coveted by homeowners.
A new study by the New York State School Boards Association paints an ugly picture. It finds that if the Legislature were to adopt this poorly thought-out tax cap, schools would lose at least $3.3 billion in local funding between now and the end of 2013-14 school year.
This loss of local school revenue would be on top of the $1.86 billion in state funding cuts that districts have suffered since 2008-09. This precipitous drop in state support, mitigated to some degree by federal stimulus dollars, has forced school districts to slash nearly 15,000 K-12 education jobs, increase class sizes and eliminate essential programs.
As the tax cap debate escalates, it's fair to ask: How is New York going to attract new jobs and new business - and ensure bright futures for its young people - if a tax cap plan severely hampers the ability of school districts and community colleges to create the trained work force needed to support a revitalized state economy?
Tax caps are troubling on many levels. To begin with, they provide only the illusion of relief. Even more problematic is that tax caps undermine local autonomy and democracy by imposing arbitrary spending limits set by politicians in Albany, regardless of community priorities.
School boards have been responsive to community concerns and careful stewards of the public's money. Last year, for example, school boards increased spending by an average of just 1.1 percent, and tax levies - despite deep cuts in state aid - rose just 2.9 percent. Voters signaled they understood that schools had done their best to rein in costs while preserving quality education, and they passed a near-record 92.4 percent of school budgets on the first try.
Unfortunately, too much of what happens is beyond the control of local school boards. Costs for health insurance, electricity and fuel for school buses rise and fall without regard to whether Albany has set an artificial ceiling on what schools can spend.
A number of ideas have already been floated and many are still striving to find a solution that works for taxpayers and schools. It's a difficult balancing act. New York State United Teachers will be working with other state leaders on how to meet the economic needs of this state. However, we must be careful not to silence the voices of parents and others who want to maintain excellent public schools and we must protect education from the harm an irresponsible tax cap would cause.