OPINION: Let the Nassau executive run the schools
What a crazy election! I am trying to understand what happened and learn from it. Why did it happen and what good can come of it?
Thinking about these questions over the past few days, I have concluded that something revolutionary has to take place on Long Island. It's this: Give the control of our schools to the county executive.
Yes, this is a radical idea. But there's a model in New York City, where Mayor Michael Bloomberg has full authority over the school system. Here, it would allow us to finally get some control over our school property taxes.
Let me explain how I get to here from the voting results.
Taxpayers are mad. And they should be. I share their anger. The property taxes in Nassau County are much too high. It's clear that my opponent's voters were angry - he did an effective job of promoting a bumper-sticker slogan, "Repeal the energy tax" - and they showed up on Tuesday. Too many of our voters stayed home.
But these results reflect more than just people being fed up with the energy tax - something is amiss in our system of governing. To my great frustration, I have served as a leader of the property tax revolt, yet this year I may end up being a victim of it.
Despite having run for governor on a platform of property tax reform and then chairing the New York State Commission on Property Tax Relief, after two terms in office - and literally thousands of hours dedicated to this fight - many believe that as an incumbent, I'm still part of the property tax problem.
How could this happen?
Here in Nassau, for some reason, voters do not distinguish between county property taxes, which make up 16 percent of the overall property tax bill - the county's portion of the tax bill went down from 23 percent when I took office to 16 percent because school taxes were increasing dramatically - and school taxes, which make up over 65 percent of the property taxes we pay, and are growing.
Despite the fact that I have absolutely no control whatsoever regarding school taxes, I believe many voters held me accountable for them.
When I was campaigning at Penn Station on election eve, many voters told me they were fed up with their school taxes. Those who weren't too late for a train - and would stop and listen - seemed appeased when I explained that the schools and county government are separate entities. But many didn't stop, tens of thousands never heard the explanation; many others simply didn't want to hear excuses. "You're the county executive! Solve it!"
Well, under the current system I cannot solve it, other than by leading a state commission to make recommendations, as I did, or entreating state or school officials to recognize that the school property tax system is unsustainable.
Why can't we get the voters and the media to focus attention on the schools, their spending, and the attendant school property taxes if they comprise the bulk of the problem?
I'll tell you why.
During the course of this campaign, nearly $5 million was spent by the candidates and political parties on both sides. TV commercials, radio commercials, literature, signage, door-to-door campaigns, get-out-the-vote efforts, and phone calls, all focused on a great debate regarding a relatively small fraction of the property tax bill.
There is no commensurate political discourse, debate or campaigning regarding school officials or Albany legislators, who mandate a great deal of school spending but don't fund it. Instead of holding school officials and Albany legislators accountable, the voters held the county executive politically accountable because there is no one person who is governmentally accountable for our high school taxes.
The reality is there are hundreds of school board officials in Nassau, alone, and their terms are staggered. And the historically low voter turnout in this recent election seems like a model for participatory democracy when compared with the inexcusable turnout of less than 10 percent for school board elections in May, when the people who will decide upwards of 65 percent of property tax bills are elected.
There's a disconnect in many voters' minds between what our state legislators do in our far-off state capital and the impact of their decisions on our local school property taxes. This is exacerbated by our tradition of "politicians should be hands off" when it comes to educating our children - that education should not be politicized.I get it. This election requires some purposeful thinking and profound change.
Let's take a lesson from New York City and put the county executive in charge of the schools. After Mayor Bloomberg was given full mayoral control, quality improved. Here in Nassau, if the county executive is going to be held accountable for the high school taxes over which he or she has no control, why not give the county executive control?
The current system costs too much and it is completely inequitable. Tax rates fluctuate wildly from district to district. Quality in some school districts in Nassau is considered among the best in the country; others are among the worst in the state. County executive control, if passed by the New York State Legislature, would both reduce costs and improve educational quality. If the county executive does not deliver on those two measures, simply vote him or her out of office.
If I end up losing this race, it may send a message that dramatic action must be taken and other elected officials must sign on to the work I have done largely alone over the years to fight for property tax relief.
If I win the race, my goal will be to try to channel this voter anger in a movement to address the problem of school property taxes by seeking county executive control of our school districts. Either way, the people want change - and they are right.