Long Island's expensive property taxes are unlikely to fade as the dominant issue in most school district elections, but as voters go to the polls tomorrow, the competence and integrity of board members should be as concerning as the budget numbers.
Overall, board members dedicate valuable time and enormous effort to provide local governance, and they perform their tasks with care and skill. Still, each challenger and incumbent deserves close scrutiny before earning your vote. A good place to start is the School Voters Guide available on Newsday.com.
The need for renewed scrutiny is apparent in recent stories detailing how the lack of diligent boards led to wasteful spending, improper behavior and unchecked, powerful superintendents in some districts.
Syosset's Carol Hankin, the state's second-highest paid superintendent, last week lashed out at the newest board member, 19-year-old Josh Lafazan, saying he contributed little and was spreading lies. Lafazan, who had campaigned against Hankin's leadership style and $500,000-plus pay package, won a board seat last year. Now other insurgents are running and Hankin, 70, perhaps unsurprisingly, has not filed for the customary one-year extension of her contract.
The Glen Cove School District is in turmoil due to a continuing cheating investigation, as well as the sudden resignation of the superintendent and the surprise replacement of the high school principal. Voters should demand answers from their board.
In Roosevelt, one board member up for re-election reportedly faces a resolution by the rest of the board to remove her for nepotism and corruption.
And in Wyandanch, the former superintendent and two other administrators were found, in an independent investigation, to have submitted bogus doctorate credentials to get paid an extra $3,000 a year.
So it's not just about the money. It seems districts have mostly held the line on taxes for the two budgets after New York enacted its 2-percent property tax cap. Although critics said it would be hard to keep the lid on after 2012, this year, 96 percent of the state's 669 school districts have proposed budgets within the cap, according to the New York State School Boards Association. The caveat is that many districts are getting about 4 percent more in state aid this year, and 97 percent of all districts were turning to their reserve funds to stabilize rates.
The cap doesn't stop actual tax bills from being higher, since pension costs are excluded and right now those contributions are sky high. Still, the consensus is that the cap is helping to prevent even higher tax increases by forcing local school boards to make tough spending calls, including cutting programs and staff. Without the cap, things would no doubt be worse. Only seven Long Island districts are seeking to bust the cap, which requires 60 percent of the vote: Baldwin, Bayshore, East Quogue, Manhasset, North Babylon, Sachem and South Country.
Although the cap is slowing the rate of increase, an artificial device should never replace the public's ability to set its own district's priorities. For that to be done well, talented members of a community must be encouraged to run for the board, and voters must choose members whose honesty and skills can ensure the children are being well educated and the tax dollars are being spent wisely.