It’s school budgeting time again, and you know what that means — the yearly local tug of war between the “no taxes” and “no cuts” lobbies, with little space in the middle for anyone else.
Budget cuts are hard, and so are taxes — well, at least for working people. Kids need a quality education, but admittedly, more money doesn’t always do the trick. And take too much money out of local economies and it hurts families (and by extension, kids) that have to tighten their own budgets to fund superfluous inefficiency at school.
We have to find a balance and most years, we do. But last year, my district struggled — as many districts did — to come up with a budget that balanced the two perennial evils of cuts and taxes. Here in Averill Park, we were all shocked to hear about the choice we had to make — either accept a double-digit percentage increase in taxes or endure major cuts to our schools.
Now, you won’t hear progressives like me admit this often — but the education system actually is full of waste, abuse, and bad teachers that give the good ones a bad name. I know it because I’m only five years out of that system.
But there’s cutting waste, and then there’s strangulation like we experienced in 2011. And while combating a broken system is a noble goal, the full range of cuts that were on the table then were outrageous: I’m talking about slashing or the wholesale elimination of programs like art, music, business, physical education — or even things like the bus service.
Last year’s budget process seemed more like punishment than reform, and school districts across the state paid for it. Most people were shocked and appalled at sending our local education system back decades. At the same time, many of those same people seemed to accept that this was a natural, unavoidable result of the Great Recession.
Some people believed the budgeting process had gotten out of control over the last few years, but that the current severity before us was due to the economic downturn. Still others directed their anger at the school board, as if they were responsible for the situation.
Most people, however, didn’t seem to understand this was a manufactured crisis — brought on by our own votes in the 2010 election.
The broad tragedy of the year 2011 was that all across the country, we realized that when we elect conservatives to office, they do exactly what they say they’re going to do. Even though Gov. Andrew Cuomo is a Democrat, his actions regarding New York’s finances are severely conservative. In order to force a balanced budget, Cuomo cut assistance to schools by $1.5 billion. New York’s dual revenue system splits responsibility between state aid and local funding. Lower one and you have to raise the other — or starve the school system.
Come Election Day, our district voted to raise property taxes by about 5 percent. No one was happy about it, and most people, even if they begrudgingly supported the measure, took it as further proof of the growing tax bogeyman — which is exactly what Gov. Cuomo wants you to think.
Here we go again
Since Albany shirked its financial responsibility to fund education, it instead meant our community had to shoulder the burden. It was all part of Gov. Cuomo’s education reform plan — just having us figure it out. This approach squeezed us dry and forced local taxpayers to do what we could to stop the hemorrhaging. And due to the nature of property taxes, it lifted the tax burden off the state’s millionaires and placed it directly on the backs of the middle class.
Fast-forward to 2012, where we’re about to experience this again. Though Gov. Cuomo has pledged a 4 percent increase in education assistance, it’s hardly enough to make this year any easier. Like many districts, Averill Park faces another large shortfall. But this time, we can’t make up the difference, thanks to Gov. Cuomo’s property tax cap. In fact, we’d have to get six out of 10 “yes” votes to raise taxes more than 2 percent.
Districts are being given extra responsibility, and the state is limiting their freedom to deal with it. All the while, Gov. Cuomo sits pretty, knowing he gets all the credit for his budget “accomplishments” — and none of the blame for their deleterious effects.
Let’s hope that a repeat of the 2011 experience serves as a wake-up call for 2013. Let’s pressure our elected representatives to dramatically increase state aid or get rid of the property tax cap “vice.” We should get a fair shake from Albany, not a bait and switch that leaves kids hurting — and puts our future in jeopardy.
Steve Keller lives in Averill Park and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.