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Editorial: To control school taxes, rein in compensation

Editorial: To control school taxes, rein in compensation

Salaries and benefits continue to drive up cost of education in New York
Editorial: To control school taxes, rein in compensation
Photographer: Shutterstock

Up until Tuesday, the athletic director for the Greater Johnstown School District was worth a salary of $90,000 a year.

On Wednesday, the school board decided he was worth $53,000 less.

It’s amazing how frugal our public officials can be with our tax dollars when their backs are up against the wall.

Imagine, a school district in rural Fulton County with just 1,800 students willingly paying $90,000 a year, plus generous benefits, for an athletic director.

Yet had the district not been facing mounting financial problems and looking at the possibility of operating on a contingency budget in the face of a potential second budget defeat at the polls next month, board members wouldn’t have been forced to come to terms with their past spending practices.

The awarding of lucrative salaries would have continued unabated and largely unnoticed by the general taxpaying public.

We don’t mean to single out this individual or athletic directors. These kinds of salaries are found throughout school districts in New York, at all levels, from administrators to elementary school teachers.

If you want to see individual compensation for the employees in your local school district, visit the See Through NY website. Click on payrolls, then school districts, then the district and individuals you’re interested in. It’s eye-opening.

MANY FACTORS AT WORK

A combination of decades of free-wheeling generosity by local school boards, pressure to increase teacher pay from politically powerful unions, and state laws and policies that make it impossible for districts to rein in spending has gotten New York to the point where it spends more per student and offers the highest teacher salaries of any other state in the country.

Districts in New York spent on average $22,366 per student in 2016. That’s by far the highest in the country and nearly double the national average.

Yet New York consistently ranks around the middle of all states in terms of the quality of the education it’s providing. And the disparity among districts means some don’t get the resources they need to provide a solid education.

A major element of the high per-student costs is teacher compensation.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, New York’s teachers are the highest-paid in the country, earning an average salary of $77,957 in 2015-16.

The governor and the Legislature can claim credit for attempting to rein in local property taxes with the imposition of the tax cap. But to make up for districts’ inability to significantly raise local taxes, lawmakers keep increasing state spending on schools.

So New York taxpayers are still paying an ever-increasing amount for schools and far more per student than every other state’s taxpayers.

If New York is ever going to get a handle on its school spending, it’s going to have to change laws and policies that force districts to pay salaries that are higher than the individual position calls for and higher than local taxpayers can afford to pay for that particular position.

School districts and lawmakers can’t keep giving in to unions who demand more compensation than many districts can afford. In a big city, it might be legitimate to pay an elementary school teacher $85,000 or $90,000 a year. But should that be the same pay a teacher gets in a rural upstate district?

Salaries certainly should be competitive and should adequately compensate teachers for the education and skills their job requires. But there must be limits.

In our May 28 article on per-pupil spending, one expert cited as one reason for the high personnel costs a state labor law called the Triborough Amendment that keeps expired union contracts in place until new contracts are negotiated.

Those old contracts always form the base for new, more lucrative contracts.

Annual step increases and raises on top of that, combined with state requirements for expensive retirement and health benefits, are keeping New York from breaking the tax-and-spend cycle.

We all want our kids to get the best education we can provide. But should that mean taxpayers write a blank check?

If state lawmakers are serious about cutting taxes, they’ll have to stop doing the politically safe thing in raising state aid and capping local taxes.

They’re going to have to address the fundamental elements that contribute to our school costs rising year after year.

If the public doesn’t push for these changes, then they’ve got no business complaining about their taxes.

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