School Budget Series: The statewide school budget situation

May 7, 2012

Many school budgets across New York state have been hit hard by the recession. Tax revenues are down at the same time that costs are rising.

Meanwhile New York tax payers have been looking for relief. Last June the governor signed a so-called tax cap on how much local districts can increase property taxes this year.

"This is a re-calibration to the economic realities today. And to the extent the government has to do it and it's somewhat unpleasant, I understand that," Cuomo said. "In many ways, I think that government is just adjusting to an economic reality that tax payers adjusted to years ago."

Each district's limit for raising taxes is calculated slightly differently. The average statewide levy is just under 2.5%.

School districts can raise taxes at a higher rate but they need 60% of the vote to do so. Unlike past years, if the budget is voted down twice the tax rate won't be raised at all. So over 90% of districts are proposing budgets within the tax cap.

Those who call for more fiscal discipline in government, like Elizabeth Lynam of the Citizens Budget Commission, say the tax cap is a good move.

"It does force a trade-off. It forces a good look at the total pie - and what's in, and what's out, and what can go. Where there are abilities to consolidate or to reduce expenditures, those things have been undertaken in many school districts," Lynam said.

But many educators, like New York State Teacher's Union President Richard Ianuzzi, say the cost of the tax cap will be too high.

"The real impact of that is the elimination of some very, very important programs that this generation of students will be denied," Ianuzzi said.

To off-set the tax cap, state funding to local schools is up 4% after three years of cuts or no additional spending. But Michael Borges of the New York State Association of School Business Officials says it's not enough - especially since state-mandated educational requirements were not changed.

"School expenditures are going up while our ability to raise revenue to meet those expenses is coming down. At some point there's going to be a breaking point," Borges said. "There's going to be both an education and a financial bankruptcy for schools."

In order to save money, school districts across the state have made cuts that include lay offs, cancelation of courses, sports and other extra curricular activities, increasing class size and even closing entire schools.

While some suburban districts still have a high tax base and aren't in as bad shape, Borges says many urban and rural districts don't, so the tax cap further limits them.

"Now they're cutting into the bones, the meat and potatoes of the educational program and they'll be reaching educational insolvency before the low-need suburban school districts will be," Borges said.

But despite all this cutting in recent years, New York still spends among the highest amount per student in the nation. Elizabeth Lynam, of the Citizens Budget Commission, says it's important that voters approve those spending levels.

"It is local preference. We do have a budget vote that allows for local residents to reject those kinds of expenditures if they would like to," Lynam said. "It's local action, local control of the school districts."

New York is one of only eight states that puts the budgets directly to the voters. The only exception are the "big five" school districts -- Syracuse, Buffalo, Rochester, Yonkers and New York City. Those budgets are approved by the city councils. Teachers Union President Richard Ianuzzi agrees the local vote is a good idea.

"What works in Central New York may not work in Buffalo or New York City, and Central New York ought to have the ability to define its value and is part of how it creates a budget. That is worth preserving," Ianuzzi said.

One thing experts on all sides of the debate agree on: the only way to change things is to get involved, whether taxpayers feel schools are spending too much or not enough.

About WRVO's School Budget Series:

On May 15, voters across the state go to the polls to vote on their school districts' budgets. This week, we take a look at the way the budget vote works, the budget problems New York schools are facing, and the issues facing urban, suburban and rural districts.

Tomorrow, we take a look at the budget woes of the Syracuse City School District. Syracuse is one of the 'big five' districts that doesn't put its budget before voters, but instead is approved by the city council. Join us as our series continues tomorrow on Morning Edition.