NYSUT suit takes aim at tax cap

The lawsuit filed against the state by New York State United Teachers over New York’s property tax c

The lawsuit filed against the state by New York State United Teachers over New York’s property tax cap contains some eye-popping numbers:

• 35,000 teaching and staff positions have been lost at public schools since 2008.

• State aid dropped $1.86 billion between the 2008-09 and 2011-12 school years.

• The state’s share of school funding, which typically averaged between 41 percent and 47 percent annually, dropped to 39.7 percent in 2011-12, the lowest in a decade.

Then comes the tax cap, enacted in 2011, which established a formula under which school districts compute annually what they can raise in property taxes. To NYSUT, it’s a double whammy: “The tax cap limits districts’ abilities to raise local funds through property taxation to make up for state aid deficiencies; meanwhile, the state also has capped state aid to those same districts.

Sure, NYSUT, the largest public teachers union in the state, was looking out for its members when it filed the 50-page lawsuit two weeks ago in state Supreme Court in Albany County.

But if you’ve paid any attention to the news lately, you know there have been a couple of massive public meetings locally of parents and educators drawn to what was billed as forums on the “fiscal peril” facing schools. State lawmakers, too, have gotten into the act with news conferences and new legislation; one Southern Tier assemblywoman even asked the state comptroller for clarification on whether anything akin to bankruptcy exists for school districts.

I’d never claim to be an expert on how school budgets are built. Anything I once might have understood as a “beat” reporter covering education is knowledge lost long ago.

But talk of the potential for insolvency — educational and financial — in the NYSUT lawsuit makes you sit up and take notice.

NYSUT wants the tax cap declared unconstitutional as it applies to school districts for a number of reasons, one being that a supermajority of voters — 60 percent — is needed to approve any budget that exceeds the tax levy cap. (Municipalities, which also are subject to the cap, need a supermajority of their governing body to exceed the limit.) NYSUT says the cap, which is figured using an eight-step formula that sets a maximum allowable levy, put the Stillwater Central School District in an odd position last year: It needed two tries to pass a budget that was lower than the previous year’s, but had a tax levy that was higher than the cap allowed.

The initial Stillwater budget, which a majority of 56.3 percent of voters approved, eliminated two teaching and one staff position, ended elementary summer school and required that students pick up the tab for any college-level classes they took. The second time, some field trip money also was eliminated and a bond was refinanced; 62 percent of voters passed the budget in the revote.

But nipping and tucking any school’s budget will go only so far before class sizes become too large or initiatives to better prepare students for career opportunities — such as in the growing technology sector locally — suffer.

Or, as NYSUT says in its lawsuit, “The tax cap’s limits on local control of school funding comes at a time when there have been substantial cuts in state school aid, leaving many school districts starved of adequate funding and on the verge of educational and financial insolvency, and undermining their ability to provide school children with a sound basic education.”

Marlene Kennedy is a freelance columnist. Opinions expressed in her column are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Reach her at [email protected]

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