Marcus: Cap on school tax hikes is a sham
On Tuesday, voters in six Long Island school districts return to the polls to have their second say on school budgets. I want to say "No" -- no to high taxes, corruption, cronyism and disdain for taxpayers on the Island and the rest of the state. But when I go to the polls in Manhasset, I'll vote yes.
My vote is an endorsement of music, arts and sports for kids. At the same time, it's a protest against Albany's financial shell games, the state's unfair system of school funding, the rules that haphazardly penalize some districts while rewarding others.
Manhasset, one of America's wealthiest communities, is on the brink of crisis. Last month, voters failed to override the state tax levy cap. We'll try to override it again, with a budget that's been reduced by $3.1 million since the first attempt and that is $900,000 less than the 2012-13 budget. If it fails this time, the district will have to impose a "contingency" budget, more accurately called "austerity." That will mean losing teachers, clubs, drama, music and teams.
Manhasset isn't alone. Five other Island districts failed to persuade voters to puncture the cap: Baldwin, East Quogue, North Babylon, Sachem and South Country. Only Bay Shore squeaked by. Statewide, two-thirds of the 27 districts that tried to exceed the property tax levy cap failed to get the required votes.
The tax cap sounds good in theory. Any school tax increase of more than 2 percent needs to be approved by a supermajority of 60 percent. But it turns out to be a sham.
Fact is, the average allowable increase on Long Island was more than 3 percent. That's because when increases in health care costs, commercial tax revenue and other factors are figured into the mysterious state formula, the 2 percent isn't 2 percent any more. To stay under the cap, Manhasset would have to limit its levy increase to just 0.15 percent, which is essentially austerity. The district's allowable increase is just $118,923, on a current budget of $87 million.
The formula penalizes Manhasset because student enrollment is growing and the cap doesn't take that into account. Oddly, we also pay a price for winding down payments on debts.
In Manhasset, the first proposal had a budget increase of 2.56 percent and levy increase of 5.98 percent, and 53 percent of voters approved it. That simple majority isn't enough any more.
The so-called contingency budgets would require drastic cuts in these six Long Island districts. But even if we avoid contingency, all six districts are looking at larger class sizes and fewer after-school activities. In Manhasset, we're now implementing staff reductions equivalent to 22.4 full-time jobs, and wiping out all field trips, a middle-school enrichment program, several middle school teams, half the funding for elementary and middle school clubs, and 25 percent of funding for high school clubs. Sachem is talking about eliminating 220 jobs. In emotional meetings, parents and students have been pleading with school boards to explain the fallacy of the tax cap, preserve programs and try again for supermajorities.
Manhasset school employees have taken steps to save money. Superintendent Charles Cardillo hasn't had a raise in five years. Other administrators froze their salaries twice in the past three years. Teachers agreed to give up some raises and benefits.
Forget about improving or adding programs. Manhasset school board member Regina Rule hoped to introduce Mandarin, engineering and computer applications classes -- all embraced by employers -- but no longer.
Manhasset schools aren't as good as proponents say, or as expensive as critics say. This community, where many adults work for global companies, waits till seventh grade to start foreign language instruction. We don't have an International Baccalaureate program.
As a parent of three in Manhasset and a former teacher (in another state), I'd gladly give empty-nesters a substantial tax break and be charged a fee for my children's textbooks, sports and clubs. But the state prohibits such "pay for play."
Those of us on Long Island who are reeling from the cost of living -- all of us, in other words -- are furious about high taxes. School expenses are part of the problem. But we need to direct our fury at Albany, not at children.
Dave Marcus, a former Newsday reporter, is the author of "Acceptance," a book about Long Island students applying to college.
This version of the piece has been revised to recflect that the Manhasset budget is reducing 22.4 full-time equivalences, not jobs.