I am very disappointed at the recent spate of letters to the editor that have criticized the Niskayuna school board for presenting a budget for consideration on Tuesday that would slightly exceed its tax cap. Here’s why.
Gov. Cuomo believes that his imposition of a supermajority requirement for school district budget referenda is the best thing he has done to date. I consider it to be his worst and, in agreement with New York State United Teachers, to be prima facie unconstitutional.
In its recently filed lawsuit against the state, that union bases much of its argument on Article II, Section 1 of our state constitution, which reads: “Every citizen shall be entitled to vote at every election for all officers elected by the people and upon all questions submitted to the vote of the people provided that such citizen is eighteen years of age or over and shall have been a resident of this state, and of the county, city, or village for thirty days next preceding an election.”
Note that nothing in or near the phrase “vote of the people” specifies or implies that passage may require more than a simple majority.
Now, despite its extreme length relative to the U.S. Constitution and those of all other states, our state constitution is not a precise document. In the above list of voting jurisdictions, the conspicuous omissions are towns and special districts, such as those that pertain to schools, libraries, and utilities.
So far, the Legislature and governor have chosen to mandate a minimum 60 percent supermajority for passage of budgetary referenda or legislative adoption only for school districts, city councils, town and village boards, and county legislatures whose proposed real estate tax rate is 2 percent or more higher than that of the prior fiscal year, or higher than the alleged rate of inflation, whichever is less. (Allowed adjustments for the stress of required pension payments usually raises the limit to 3 percent or 4 percent.)
But the “rate of inflation” is not the same for an individual person as it is for municipalities and school districts, for which it is typically far higher but unacknowledged in the defective state legislation that purports to set a reasonable tax limit.
The NYSUT brief cites many reasons for the alleged unconstitutionality of the tax limit, but most compelling is their point number 239: “Under the tax cap, a school district voter who casts a ballot favoring increased education funding that exceeds the tax cap has only two-thirds the voting power of a voter who votes against the proposal.” It goes on to say “This undemocratically dilutes the power of voters who favor a proposal to exceed the tax cap and violates the principle of one person, one vote.” Well said.
Another arithmetic point made in the law brief is the non-uniformity of the impact of a 60 percent supermajority requirement on a school district, which is severe, but meaningless for town boards that consist of five members, as most do. Such a board needs a minimum of three of five aye votes to pass any budget at all, which is, ipso facto, 60 percent. No fuss, no muss, other than the possible voter retribution imposed for exceeding the cap.
But although our highest state court is virtually certain to declare the need for supermajority voting for referenda unconstitutional, that will not come in time for Tuesday’s vote, and possibly not in time for next year either.
How we got here
So I must turn my attention to how we in the Niskayuna school district, which extends over four towns (but, unfortunately, leaves out part of Niskayuna itself), got in this pickle in the first place.
When our school board first alerted its voters to the problem, I did not understand why so many other local suburban districts were able to craft budgets that stayed within the tax cap when ours, short of starting to dismantle what is arguably the best school district in our state, was not.
The initial warnings were dire. Close Van Antwerp Middle School? Been there, done that. Didn’t work last time, would not again. Thank goodness that is allegedly off the table. Close one of our five elementary schools (Birchwood, Craig, Glencliff, Hillside, Rosendale)? Heaven forbid.
After much research and consultation with those who could best enlighten me, I have concluded that the problem was that to avoid exceeding the tax cap last year, far too much fund balance was applied to tax mitigation, to the point where we now may be facing a string of years where overrides will be needed to restore a reasonable balance.
The district has been using $250,000 as a typical Niskayuna assessment and projecting that for such homeowners their tax increase will be about $20 per month. But I believe that $250,000 is roughly our average assessment, rather than our median, which is more like $220,000, thus reducing the monthly increase to half of us to about $17.50 per month. OK, so we don’t pay monthly, just once per year, but we must save or escrow that amount monthly, which might mean one less family trip to a first-run movie (or cancellation of Netflix).
All six of our children are graduates of Niskayuna High, but our exposure to our elementary and middle schools did not come until three of our grandchildren began the progression from Rosendale through Iroquois to the high school.
On every one of our many visits to Rosendale to view a presentation, watch the Halloween parade, or scout out the annually reconstructed tree fort behind the school, I tear up while wishing that every child in America (and the world) could have a school as good as this. And I am sure that parents who visit the other four elementary schools or either middle school feel the same.
A vote for quality
More than 95 percent of our Niskayuna High School students attend college. When you vote on Tuesday, stroll through the corridor and pause to read the Hall of Fame plaques that commemorate the achievements of so many of its graduates.
There is absolutely nothing more important than the education of our children. Vote yes for your budget, wherever you live. The district you save may be your own.
Edwin D. Reilly Jr. lives in Niskayuna and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.