Editorial: Same old school cycle continues

Taxpayers asked to cover ever-increasing costs

Categories: Editorial, Opinion

How many times have taxpayers been put through this scenario over the years?

A school district gets into financial trouble thanks to excessive spending or mismanagement of funds, unanticipated expenses such as huge bumps in pension payments to retirees, an inability to support state mandates, maintenance of aging school buildings and vehicles, declining tax bases and enrollment, or some combination of the above.

Then when the mountain of spending is about to topple over, the school board goes to taxpayers and seeks a disproportionately large tax increase.

If you don’t approve of your taxes going up 20-, 30- or 50 percent, then the kids will suffer, they say in their appeal to voters.

Like small class sizes? Hope your kids like crowds.

You know how you love to go to football games on Saturday nights? Forget about it. We won’t be able to afford a football team, or any scholastic sports.

Do you like sending your 5-year-old to kindergarten? You might have to wait til first-grade.

Say goodbye to after-school activities. Kids will just have to play kick-the-can in the streets. And no more art or music for your creative children. Just the three R’s — Readin’, writin’, arithmetic.

Oh, and add a fourth R — a Raw Deal. Either taxpayers pay the price, or the kids do.

It’s not an uncommon scenario. It’s happening right now in districts around the state. In fact, it’s happening in our own area, where the Greater Johnstown school district is paying the piper for years of a bad economy, bad budgeting, bad decision-making, and unanticipated changes to the tax base and enrollment.

In order to keep the district afloat and to keep sending their sports teams and bands out onto the field, the district is proposing to raise the tax levy 50 percent over the next two years — 35 percent this coming year and 15 percent the next.

For a home in the city of Johnstown assessed at $100,000, the school taxes without a STAR exemption will rise $44 a month, or $528 a year, with a 35 percent levy increase. For a home assessed at the same value in the town of Johnstown, the non-STAR tax hike will be $65 a month, or $780 a year. And you really don’t want to live in Palatine, where your tax will increase $77 a month without a STAR tax break, or $924 a year. Other communities in the district are in that general range. And the increases will obviously be mitigated by your particular STAR exemption. And that’s just the first year of the hike.

(Here’s a link to the district’s budget page for more details: https://www.johnstownschools.org/budget-taxes/.)

To override the state property tax cap, the district will need 60 percent of its voters to go along with that scenario. What are the odds of that happening?

The alternative is more spending cuts, with the dominoes falling heavily on sports and other extracurriculars.

Different school district. Same nonsense. Different day.

Of course, school boards past and present must shoulder much of the blame for problems like those faced by the Greater Johnstown district, awarding lucrative teacher contracts that set the state for today’s salaries, and spending beyond their means on buildings, administration, programs and other staff.

But so does the state, which has imposed a growing number of mandates on schools over the years.

The state also bears responsibility for allowing these small districts to continue to blackmail voters by threatening to either send their taxes through the roof or to cut the educational and non-educational offerings residents support the most.

One way to cut costs for school districts is to eliminate redundancies within and among school districts and other municipalities.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has been trying for years to convince districts to merge with neighboring districts in order to save money on administration, buildings and staff expenses.

Given that school districts generally all teach from the same state curriculum, do small school districts really need their own superintendents, secretaries and other administrative staff? Could two or three or five small rural districts all be run out of the same administrative center? Could busing routes and school buildings be adapted to accommodate students from neighboring school districts? 

Could combined school districts benefit in purchases and repairs through economy of scale? Of course they could.

Despite the state offering incentives, few districts have been willing to merge or combine efforts to the degree that’s possible to save taxpayers significant amounts of money.

The state education commissioner said last month that she’s not in favor of forcing districts to merge, instead leaving that decision up to local residents.

But at what point are the residents shooting themselves in the collective foot by not supporting consolidation and mergers? And at what point does the state say, “We have a statewide school system. We’ll make the decision as to what districts merge and which don’t?”

That mandate may be unavoidable unless the Legislature and school districts act to avert it.

Several pieces of pending legislation pending in Albany might help.

One bill (A1543/S3875) would allow school districts to be reimbursed for actual expenses for any studies they conduct related to reorganization, defined in the bill as “any merger, consolidation, or annexation.” Passage of this bill should incentivize districts to move forward on such studies, since the state would pick up the tab.

Another bill (A5729) would allow districts not only to share services and take advantage of economies of scale with one another, but with other local governments and BOCES units as well. Why should a town and a school district, for instance, have separate maintenance crews, when they might be able to share mechanics at a cheaper cost?

Another bill that could allow districts to save money on personnel costs (A5436)  would let school boards make decisions regarding employment based on performance, qualifications and the best interests of the students.

Right now, districts may only trim staff based on seniority, which means the most expensive staff members stay on, even if there are better teachers and staff members earning less money. Admittedly, this gets tricky, but lawmakers could enact safeguards to ensure that personal and political beefs don’t factor into who gets laid off.

And one proposed bill (A5412/S3690) takes the whole consolidation/merger issue up to the state level by compelling the state Education Department to identify school districts with 1,000 students or less that might be able to consolidate. After a study, the department would recommend which school districts should consolidate.

Under this legislation, there still would be significant local input and a local referendum to ultimately decide the fate of the merger.

But we could foresee lawmakers at some time giving the Education Department the power to force the consolidation of some districts in the future.

The vicious cycle of tax hikes/budget cuts can’t continue.

New Yorkers already pay the highest amount in the country in per-student spending, and we’re in the top seven in the country in property taxes, of which school taxes make up a significant percentage.

If the state doesn’t do something to rein in the expenses, then New Yorkers will continue to be faced with the tough decision of paying even higher school taxes or depriving our children of a full public-school education.

Aren’t we all sick of this by now? If districts won’t act, the state needs to step in and do it.

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