Hallelujah, Hallelujah! Finally a show of backbone from Niskayuna voters! It’s been a long time coming.
Since we moved into the town 10 years ago, I found it odd, annoying, and then frustrating that school budgets were approved year after year, tax increase after tax increase, with nary a word of complaint or a ripple of discontent from taxpayers. I was beginning to think that in the land of McMansions and manicured lawns, the legendary brainpower that supposedly defi nes Niskayuna and shapes its school district had been short-circuited. Far from the deep gene pools that other suburbs could only dream of corralling, were we really just a community of unsuspecting dolts? And then came Richard Baker’s well-crafted letter to the editor (Daily Gazette, May 9, 2013) — finally a glimmer of hope.
This year marks the first time I have cast a no vote on a school budget. It is also the first time I have failed to offer my uncompromising support for a school budget. Long before I became a parent, long before I was married, I enthusiastically supported whatever dollar amount, whatever percentage increase the district threw at us. Whether they were budget votes or budget hearings, I proclaimed an unqualifi ed “yes.”
In years past, when friends and colleagues talked about school budgets in their communities, suburbs such as Scotia-Glenville, North Colonie and Guilderland, to name but a few, I proudly climbed on my soapbox to give my spiel: Education is an investment in the future of our communities and the larger society, and approving school budgets is our obligation to the current and future generations. At the time, with budget increases well in line with average yearly salary increases for most workers, I let everyone know that we all needed to pony up and shut up.
Ah, but this time around my rallying cry became “enough is enough, is enough!” Since moving into the district in the fall of 2003, by my calculations, school taxes have shot up close to 50 percent. While I can speak only for myself, I am highly doubtful that salaries, even here in the land of plenty, have kept pace.
OVER THE ‘CAP’
Less than two weeks ago, while other districts were voting up or down on 2.29, 2.47, and 2.9 percent increases, (one actually came in at 1.5 percent), we were being asked to swallow a 5.76 percent increase – exceeding the district’s state “cap.” In the interest of full disclosure, I must report that folks in the South Colonie School District busted their “cap,” approving a 4.98 percent tax increase. This should have no import for homeowners in the Niskayuna school district, though, most of whom view Colonie schools as vastly inferior. But, lest Niskayuna school leaders feel they are alone in their misery, 75 percent of school districts statewide that looked to breach their “caps” saw their budgets go down in fl ames.
Cobbling together a budget by taking a snip here and a snip there to keep everything reasonably intact, simply doesn’t work on a $6 million shortfall. There comes a time when the scissors simply aren’t enough and, as grossly unfair as it is, the ax has to come out.
Yes, cutting into the bone is painful, and when we are forced to do it to our schools, it’s downright shameful. But, bleeding taxpayers with year after year of tax increases that well exceed the cost of living, is equally shameful. Most disturbing, however, the real losers here are already overburdened teachers, micromanaged by Albany politicians and bureaucrats, and the kids. They stand to lose the most.
Talk of school budgets inevitably leads to disgruntled taxpayers griping and moaning about teacher salaries. It is the common thread that seems to dominate any discussion of school budgets — especially when looking for ammunition to defeat one. You will never hear me say, or read in anything I write, that teachers are overpaid — wellpaid, yes, overpaid, absolutely not. With teachers already besieged by so-called Common Core Learning Standards and the new, absolutely absurd teacher evaluation systems now in place, No Child Left Behind is certain to be relegated to a buzz phrase. It should be relegated to the ash heap populated by other boneheaded attempts by politicians to tinker with a teaching-learning compact that they can’t begin to understand.
Teachers not only shape young minds and souls, the impact they have on their students extends far beyond the classroom, and long after classes graduate or their charges are dismissed for the summer. They affect our future more than they may even know. And, they save lives. If you doubt that, just ask parents and students in Moore, Okla., and Newtown, Ct.
WHEN IT WAS KING
Perhaps (and I repeat perhaps) there was a time when Niskayuna voters may have been justified in accepting whatever percent increase was thrown at them, because the district’s schools were simply that much better than any of their counterparts. In the 1960s and probably well into the ’80s, Niskayuna was the undisputed academic king of the Capital Region. If, for argument’s sake, Niskayuna was rated a 98 on a scale of 100, its closest local competitor would probably coast in at about 85, on a good day.
Today, however, and I know this is heresy, Niskayuna is no longer head and shoulders above the crowd. It’s not that Niskayuna has lost a beat, it hasn’t; it’s just that other districts have caught up. In 2013, there is virtual parity among many of the suburban elites. Bethlehem, North Colonie, Guilderland and, yes, Voorheesville all compare quite favorably to Niskayuna, and even surpass it in some categories. Now, I know that you can cite one study, one survey, one point on a given measuring stick to show that a particular school district outranks its neighbors, but in assessing all the facts and statistics fairly and holistically, that parity is evident.
Our area’s large and deep gene pool now extends well beyond the eminent scientists at General Electric’s Research and Development Center, providing suburbs outside of Niskayuna with robust, engaged and gifted students.
Now that the dust has settled, what happens next? Before we pronounce a fi nal judgment on school administrators, the school board and Niskayuna voters, let’s see how things play out on June 18. Will voters accept the $559,000 scissors or demand the $3 million ax?
Frank Ciervo lives in Niskayuna and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.