May 2013 - School Finance
April 26, 2013

School budgets suffer under tax cap limits

Author: Betsy Sandberg
Source: NYSUT United
student doing math
Caption: Photo by Betsy Sandberg.

Most voters will decide May 21 on school budgets that increase class sizes, cut programs and close schools so districts can stay within the state-imposed tax cap.

A NYSUT survey found the number of districts statewide trying to override the tax cap is fewer than those making the attempt last year. It also found districts are staying far within the cap.

Take the City of Schenectady. The school board unanimously agreed to increase the tax levy for its 2013-14 budget by only 1 percent, when it could have raised the tax levy by 5 percent - and still been under the cap.

The budget going before voters calls for closing a school for pre-kindergarten and special education students, increasing class sizes at all levels to the maximum allowed by contract, changing the school day to a seven-period schedule in the middle school and reducing art and music offerings. Up to 117 staffers would lose their jobs.

"What can I say? We're not even going to try to ask if the community is willing to pay a few dollars more," said Juliet Benaquisto, president of the Schenectady Federation of Teachers. SFT members delayed pay increases last year to provide $800,000 in savings for the district, and committed to working with the district on finding an additional $100,000 in savings beyond the $360,000 they helped the district find in savings from consultant fees.

Despite the sting of layoffs, Benaquisto said members would work hard to pass the budget.

"We all know what is going to happen with increased class sizes and 81 fewer paraprofessionals to help special education students and less art and music," Benaquisto said. "Yet, we all know it can be even worse if the budget goes down."

NYSUT urges members to vote on their school budgets and press.es that point constantly through an online budget advocacy toolkit to encourage a strong voter turnout.

"Voters have long supported their public schools and that support is more vital than ever," NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi said.

The risk of having to go back to voters a second time is far too dangerous. That's because the tax cap law, which went into effect in 2012, restricts how school districts and local municipalities can increase their tax levies. All school districts, except New York City, Buffalo, Syracuse, Rochester and Yonkers, need a 60 percent "yes" vote to exceed the cap.

Districts noted they can't risk budgets being voted down twice because it means a zero percent increase in the budget. Previously, districts only had to adopt a contingency budget.

Last year, 30 of 49 school districts were successful in overriding the cap. In February, NYSUT filed a lawsuit asserting the tax cap unconstitutionally limits local control over the programs districts can offer and undermines basic democracy.

The NYSUT survey found 39 districts are attempting an override this year. On Long Island, where 12 districts tried to override last year, only six will try this year; most districts are staying well under their tax cap.  Update May 12: That survey was done before the April 26 deadline for districts to submit budgets. The latest figures have 27 districts attempting an override this year.

The Niagara-Wheatfield school board in western New York went right to its tax cap limit when it adopted a budget that increased taxes by 5.91 percent. The board proposes cutting a pre-engineering class designed to prepare students for college and about 14 jobs.

School board members warned if voters don't approve the budget, kindergarten, all sports and other non-mandated items will be eliminated.

"We have a lot of work to do to pass this budget, especially since school board members declined to tell the public about all the things teachers were willing to do to save programs," said Kevin Rustowicz, president of the Niagara-Wheatfield Teachers Association. Last year, the union agreed to health insurance savings and to eliminate a tuition reimbursement benefit that saved the district $1.2 million to $1.4 million a year.

"The villains in this are the governor and state lawmakers who are inadequately funding state schools," Rustowicz said. State aid to schools next year is still millions of dollars less than what was provided for the 2008-09 and 2009-10 years.