May 2014 - School Finance
May 07, 2014

VOTE YES! Support your local school budget today. It matters.

Author: Ned Hoskin
Source: NYSUT United
vote yes may 20
Caption: Local unions are partnering with NYSUT, using phone banks in regional offices, voter data from NYSUT's records departments, and postcards and materials available online, to get voters to the polls and to pass their local school budgets.

UPDATE: May 20

Decisions are made by those who show up. Today, you can show up and help make the decision about whether or not your community invests in your local public schools. Show up. It matters.

Your "yes" vote can make the difference between your local schools - and your local students - winning or losing. So make sure you go to the polls and vote YES on your local school budget! Make sure that your family, your friends and your co-workers go the polls and vote YES!


What's at stake:

A double whammy: Tax cap, tax freeze put strain on school budgets as vote nears

It's not surprising. Two years ago, the first year the property tax cap was in place, dozens of districts sought the 60 percent supermajority to exceed their tax levy limits, and 24 succeeded; last year, only 28 tried and seven succeeded. This year, it looks like only 15 will try.

"The penalties for trying and failing are so crushing," said NYSUT Executive Vice President Andy Pallotta. "It's no wonder districts are growing more and more hesitant to attempt to exceed the cap." He noted that NYSUT is challenging the tax cap law in court on several grounds.

GETTING OUT THE VOTE

Local unions are partnering with NYSUT, using phone banks in regional offices, voter data from NYSUT's records departments, and postcards and materials available online, to get voters to the polls and to pass their local school budgets.

Designated local leaders should visit nysut.org/schoolbudgettoolkit to access resources. (Login required.)

Seven locals — Smithtown, Patchogue-Medford and Niagara- Wheatfield among them — are working with NYSUT to pilot a new online get-out-the-vote system called Amicus. It is designed to streamline GOTV efforts using members' own social media contacts.

School communities across the state, except for the "Big 5" urban districts of New York City, Buffalo, Syracuse, Rochester and Yonkers, will vote on their budgets May 20. Voters also will elect school board members, who can have even longer lasting effects on school resources. [Voters in Buffalo elect board members on May 6.]

When state lawmakers continue to create disincentives for investing in public education and institute pernicious penalties, school districts cannot afford to offer programs we once took for granted: AP courses, sports and arts — even physical education and music classes. "The tax cap and the tax freeze are the demise of public education," said Kevin Coyne, president of the Brentwood Teachers Association on Long Island.

The tax cap is often mistakenly called a "2 percent" cap. It in fact varies, and depends on several factors, including the previous year's rate of inflation. The actual tax levy percentage cap can mean a negative tax levy increase, as it does for 18 districts this year.

Equally intimidating for districts that want to pierce the cap: Prior to the tax cap law, a district that failed to pass a budget was stuck on austerity at the rate of inflation. Now, if a district fails to pass a budget, its tax levy increase is zero percent. Valley Central in Orange County is one of the districts attempting to exceed the cap this year — even with a bare-bones proposal.

"We're going to 3.9 percent this year," said Valley Central TA President Tim Brown, which is only about 1 percent more than the district's cap for this year.

"Last year we tried for 9.8 and we got hammered. This is one of the lowest first budgets we've ever presented to voters," he said. But because it exceeds the arbitrary number set by the governor's tax cap, the district faces the undemocratic burden of needing a supermajority to pass.

Last year, Valley Central lost elementary music, art and library due to budget constraints, and cut kindergarten from full-day to half-day. This year's plan is an attempt to restore many of those cuts — full music, fullday kindergarten and some art. "The budget's going to pass with more than 50 percent, no problem," Brown said, "but 60 percent is much different, and I think it's going to be close."

West Irondequoit is attempting to pierce the cap at 3.9 percent, said WITA President Scott Steinberg. That would triple the district's cap number of 1.28 percent. The district has averaged about 2 percent over the past nine years, but at the cost of program cuts and ballooning class sizes. "This is a product of the [Gap Elimination Adjustment], which forced us into this situation," said Steinberg. "If it had been a one-year thing we would have been able to make do with reserves, but now the reserves have been cut in half and we can't stay fiscally sound if we continue to do that."

West Irondequoit voters traditionally support their schools, easily exceeding 60 percent approval. This year will be more difficult because of the governor's property tax freeze. The so-called "rebate" program offers taxpayers a check if their school budgets stay below the cap. Now, school supporters must ask voters to pay more in taxes and forego a check, which, not coincidentally, would arrive a few weeks before election day.

"Most of the taxpayers in this district would see a check for $40 to $80," Steinberg said. The question voters have to answer is: How much are the music and sports programs worth?

In Suffolk County, four districts are seeking to pierce the cap — East Hampton, East Quogue, Sayville and West Babylon, the most in any region.