Many of us saw Gov. Cuomo on television promoting his proposed budget, telling us it is balanced with no new taxes. But, unfortunately, it does increase our taxes. New York taxpayers pay other taxes — in particular school taxes. For many middle-income New Yorkers, especially seniors, the school tax is far more than their income taxes.
The primary reason for higher school taxes is that the governor’s proposed budget shortchanges all of our schools.
Thanks to inadequate state aid, many schools are looking at increases in the tax levy this year of 6 percent to 8 percent. These large increases will be necessary even after the elimination of many teaching and other personnel positions. At the Mohonasen school district, business administrator Chris Ruberti explained that the easier reductions have already been made during the past three years and “there’s nothing left to cut.” This is a common experience in upstate suburban, rural and city schools.
Limited by cap
Making matters worse, a 6 percent to 8 percent tax increase would be considerably more than that allowed under the state’s 2 percent tax cap on increases. Thus, it would require a 60 percent supermajority vote of the local taxpayers. In many districts, the voters will not tolerate these large increases and thus school staff and programs will be further cut. This problem is the focus of a lawsuit being brought by the New York State United Teachers union. The suit contends that the 2 percent cap has a disproportionate negative impact on lower-wealth school districts.
Niskayuna schools reported that they also have to look at cutting programs and staff. Without any cuts, the tax increase would be 11.8 percent. After a cut in staff positions, which would save $1.5 million, the tax increase would be 8.9 percent. The closing of Van Antwerp Middle School would save an additional million, but the tax increase would still be about 7 percent.
The Niskayuna district’s tax cap is about 3.3 percent (the 2 percent plus allowed adjustments). Thus a 7 percent increase would require the 60 percent supermajority to pass. A district survey of Niskayuna taxpayers indicated about 50 percent would vote for a tax increase higher than the cap, and an additional 22 percent were undecided.
Public schools in New York face similar financial problems. The state’s tax-levy cap leaves most schools with a budget shortfall year after year unless the state provides adequate and predictable funding.
No end in sight
The lack of proper funding for New York schools is not a one-time problem. This has been going on since Gov. Paterson’s term. The state has been reducing aid to schools in order to close the state’s own budget gap. The “Gap Elimination Adjustment” (GEA) is a term used when the state takes away money promised to schools in order to close its own budget gap. This year’s budget by Cuomo does nothing to stop these funding decreases.
In fiscal year 2011, total state school aid was $26.4 billion. It was decreased to $23.2 billion in 2012. According to the governor’s budget projections, school aid doesn’t reach the 2011 level again until after 2017. Of course all school expenses increase every year, so local schools could be looking at tax increases from 6 percent to 8 percent as far as the eye can see. School programs may be so reduced that our children’s’ education will be severely limited and some schools will be bankrupt.
On Jan. 31, an areawide meeting of stakeholders from 47 school districts was held at Columbia High School, with more than 1,300 people in attendance. The meeting theme was “Your Public Schools in Fiscal Peril — Running Out of Time and Options.” Richard Timbs, an expert in school financing, was the guest speaker. He emphasized the crises facing our schools and called for all stakeholders to lobby their state legislators to take action — i.e. increase school funding and eliminate the Gap Elimination Adjustment.
Local legislators agree the formula for state school aid is unfair. They want to include an additional $350 million in the state budget to partially replace the $2 billion removed as part of the GEA.
According to state Sen. Cecilia Tkaczyk from Duanesburg: “The GEA was supposed to be a one-time cut. Unfortunately, these cuts have continued.” Tkaczyk described its proposal as short-term and said the state needs a long-term plan to change how education is funded.
Where the additional funds for the schools will come from is a major question. Tkaczyk suggested closing tax loopholes and taxing businesses that operate in the state but have no headquarters here. “We are open to suggestions,” she added.
Letting children down
Phil Steck, assemblyman from Colonie, suggested changing Cuomo’s competitive grant process and applying the funds to regular school payments. Steck noted that the problem is more than the inequities of the GEA, as different schools have different needs.
Until a new plan is implemented that will significantly increase school funding, our public schools and children will suffer. The education of our children is one of the most important jobs of state and local governments, and we are in a downward spiral toward failure.
Gazette readers who have an interest in this important issue, quality education for our kids, are encouraged to lobby the governor and their legislators to increase state funding for all our schools.
Don Cazer lives in Niskayuna. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.