You wouldn't know it from the current political dialogue, but New York State already has a school budget cap.
It goes into effect after voters defeat a locally prepared budget. In fact, this year, if a school district had experienced a budget defeat, its increase would have been limited to zero - 120 percent of the Consumer Price Index. The already-existing cap legislation limits the increase of a twice-defeated budget to 120 percent of CPI or 4 percent, whichever is lower.
Understanding the possibility that this cap could have been imposed on 2010-11 budgets if communities voted no, Long Island voters approved 114 of 124 school budgets on the first vote in May 2010, and the other 10 on a revote a month later. Given an awareness of the impact of an artificial spending cap on their schools, as well as proposed budget increases that were, on average, lower than in recent years, nearly two-thirds of voters in the 10 districts that experienced a revote voted yes.
What does this tell us about Long Islanders and budget caps? Voters could have chosen to limit the increase in school spending to 0 percent this year, preventing a $250-million Islandwide increase. This would have resulted in a property tax levy 3.3 percent lower than that which was approved. Instead, in the middle of the most challenging economic times in recent memory, most Long Islanders voted for additional taxes to preserve the quality of the programs and services offered by their schools.
Long Islanders have a clear understanding of the importance of the public school system to our children as well as our economic well-being and the preservation of property values. So we choose to pay higher property taxes to make up for reductions in state support and rising costs. With the budget votes this spring, we affirmed our belief that the educational system is a foundation of the quality of life here.
All Long Island communities - all 124 districts - stood up for their schools. The most affluent as well as those with exceedingly limited resources voted yes. This "across the board" support for community schools is important to remember now that Gov. David A. Paterson is trying to compel the Assembly to vote on a property tax cap before the November elections, and as politicians debate the merits of a cap in the weeks ahead.
One fact that will likely be overlooked in this debate is the disproportionally severe impact a cap will have on our poorest school districts. Research has confirmed, time and again, that there's a significant achievement and resource gap between our most wealthy and the lowest wealth school districts. A recent study prepared by the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association demonstrates that a tax cap under current conditions will put far more severe constraints on those who already have far less. The cap will lock in the funding gap, making the achievement gap even more difficult to close. It will add another structural obstacle to providing equal educational opportunities to all of our children.
There are better ways to control property tax growth. Long Island schools need to take dramatic steps to control spending, and we need for the state to step up and support education at a higher level. Educators here understand our responsibility to work toward a solution, and we've collaborated with legislators to introduce bills promoting bold changes to the funding formulas, changing our approach to providing mandated services, and encouraging back-office consolidation. More recently, we have collaborated with the Long Island Regional Planning Council in the development of soon-to-be-released recommendations that will lead to more cost-effective operations.
Long Islanders are currently funding about 70 percent of school expenses with their property taxes - far greater than the 53 percent average in the rest of the state. We shouldn't be so dependent on property taxes - and we shouldn't be so eager to lock them in at a level well in excess of the state average.
On the surface, the tax cap proposal appears to be a quick fix to a significant, long-evolving problem. But let's all understand the potential damage a quick fix can cause. This problem requires a thoughtful, comprehensive strategy to reduce costs and increase state support. It's up to our leaders in Albany to bring stakeholders together to assure that our schools can do what our communities expect and can afford.