Not enough being done to hold line on Schenectady school taxes

It's that time of the year again. School budget season is back, and the first thing I want to do is

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It’s that time of the year again.

School budget season is back, and the first thing I want to do is hide.

I want to avoid discussing the tax increase in the proposed 2015/2016 budget for the Schenectady City School District.

I want to write it off as if it were not worthy of even a cursory glance. But I cannot, because I would be denying my true feelings on the matter — disappointment.

Maybe paying $7 more on a house assessed at $100,000 doesn’t sound so bad. But when it is mentioned in the same breath as $3.4 million in new spending, my ears feel like they are going to bleed. Taxes are already too high in Schenectady.

Bear in mind, this all came as a surprise after Superintendent Laurence Spring and the school board indicated just a few weeks ago that their proposed budget would not contain a tax hike.

Despite no cuts and the addition of new programs and employees to address student behavioral problems, they said taxes would not go up for Schenectady homeowners.

I was overjoyed when I heard this, but little did I know that my joy would be so fleeting. With a reluctant change of heart, the school board recently approved a budget that calls for a tax increase, despite the district receiving $5.1 million more in state aid.

While the overall proposed tax levy will remain unchanged from this year’s budget, Schenectady residents will still see their individual taxes go up if next year’s school board-approved budget is passed by voters.

Not to mention that there remains a level of uncertainty pertaining to the equalization rate on all city-assessed properties.

The state will be setting the equalization rate in July, which means residents won’t know how much they will be paying in taxes until long after they have voted.

Why-oh-why can’t Schenectadians catch a break? I wish I was able to play devil’s advocate and find a strong argument for the tax hike.

I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that over the past decade, mental health has become a focal point of early childhood development. The prospect of hiring additional behavioral specialists and creating associated programs is a growing movement in public education. But I would also be disingenuous if I said I didn’t hold some sort of skepticism toward the movement.

That’s not to say that I wish to ignore the growing mental health diagnoses and behavioral problems among our youths; not in any way, shape or form. I am not arguing that school districts shouldn’t take the mental health of their students seriously.

I am arguing that Schenectady homeowners shouldn’t have to be taxed more to pay for it; especially after the school district has received a sizable increase in state aid. Maybe I am missing something. Maybe more information will come to light over the next several days leading up to the budget hearing on May 6.

I know mandatory and contractually obligated costs have gone up — health insurance premiums, salaries and utility expenses almost always do.

In years past and with much smaller or no aid increases, the school district did its best to cut spending in order to lessen the tax burden on homeowners. In fact, I must have heard the term “bare bones” at least once in every budget discussion that I can remember.

Just last year around this time, cutting music and sports programs, along with implementing teacher furloughs, were thrown around as viable options to prevent taxes from increasing.

The reaction from students, parents and teachers was predictable — outrage and protests tabled these ideas almost immediately. And it has been equally predictable to see that Superintendent Spring and the school board have made no mention about cutting anything in next year’s budget.

Perhaps they fear public scorn, which would seem understandable at first until one realizes that tough decisions come with their jobs. They were appointed and elected to get their hands dirty, not avoid scrutiny.

It is my hope that one of two things happen on or before the budget hearing. Either Spring and the school board go back to the table and find a way to lower the overall tax levy — an unlikely occurrence.

Or voiced frustration and disapproval at the budget hearing forces them back to the table — a more likely outcome, but one that relies heavily on negative voter sentiment.

A school budget without a tax increase is not asking for the moon, although I do acknowledge certain realities when it comes to the budget.

Unless the Gap Elimination Adjustment is ended and the school district receives 100 percent of its projected state aid, Schenectady homeowners will never experience true tax relief.

I accept this not because I am fine with it, but because Spring and the school board can only do so much. However, I cannot accept their 2015/2016 proposed budget, because they haven’t done enough and they know it.

That is why voters need to show up on May 6 and demand reduced spending; I suggest that Spring and the school board implement a plan that will spread out new spending over multiple years so as to reduce the overall tax burden.

I just hope voters speak up about the perpetually rising taxes in Schenectady; they are too big a problem to ignore.

Robert Caracciolo is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.

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