This year's statewide school budget vote was the first to take place after Governor Andrew Cuomo convinced the legislature to adopt the property tax cap.
The governor says the tax cap imposed “fiscal discipline.”
He says he’s pleased that few school districts attempted to override the cap, that most districts kept tax increases to a minimum and that so many budgets were approved by voters.
He says taxpayers, as well as state government, are tapped out.
“At one point, there is no more money, and that’s where we are now,” said Cuomo. “The answer is not ‘put your hand in the pocket of the taxpayer’ anymore.”
Cuomo and the legislature did give schools a four percent funding increase from last year, following three years of cuts.
The teachers union, New York State United Teachers, reports that 96 percent of school budgets passed. NYSUT President Richard Iannuzzi calls that a “mixed blessing.” He says it is good news that so many budgets were approved, but he wonders, “at what cost?”
He says districts have had to make budget changes like cutting full-day kindergarten to half-day and cutting back on athletics, arts and music.
“That’s a high price,” said Iannuzzi.
Some schools did exercise their option to circumvent the tax cap. In the new law, districts can raise taxes above the cap, which averaged around 3 percent per district, if more than 60 percent of voters say yes.
Iannuzzi says a disturbing trend may be developing. He says if the preliminary voting returns hold, voters in richer schools overrode the cap when given that option, while voters in poorer schools did not.
Iannuzzi says that could be grounds for a legal constitutional challenge to the tax cap law, because New York’s constitution requires that all children in the state receive a “sound, basic” education.
“We’re going to look very closely at the results to see whether there’s an argument here to challenge the tax cap in terms of issues of equity,” said Iannuzzi.
The New York State School Boards Association is also expressing reservations about future trends.
The School Board’s Tim Kremer says two thirds of districts cut teaching staff, and 99 percent needed to dip into their reserve funds, which are rapidly dwindling. He says the years of cutbacks are taking their toll, and he says at some point soon, children’s educations will be compromised.
“That’s the big question,” said Kremer, who says State Education Commissioner John King has said some districts are already approaching “educational insolvency” and that students will come out of high school “unprepared for college or a career.”
Kremer says for some districts, “that may be coming sooner than later.”
The school boards say it’s up to Cuomo and the legislature now to follow through with the second part of property tax reform -- the elimination of what they say are costly state-mandated programs and regulations.