Vecchio: Voters' 'no' could mean something
Taxpayers who want to stop yearly property tax hikes can now do so by voting "no" on their school budget on May 15.
Each year, school districts try to determine how much more they can tax and still get their budgets passed by voters. The stakes are higher than ever this year, thanks to a section of the new New York State tax cap law. Taxpayers now have the power to vote the school budget down to enforce a zero increase and regain some control over the amount they pay in property taxes. In the past, "no" votes still led to tax hikes. Now, by voting no, taxpayers can impose their own cap of 0 percent.
Voters are entitled to a true accounting of salary hikes, benefits and untapped reserves, but often we get pro-spending propaganda instead; the facts are spun in favor of higher taxes. The growing opposition from tapped-out taxpayers to paying higher school taxes is dismissed by cap opponents, since most of them are beneficiaries of the current system. The Suffolk County School Superintendents Association crafted a self-serving survey, posted on school district websites, to imply voters would support busting the tax cap. The New York State United Teachers union has launched a $2 million ad campaign to urge voters to approve school district budgets.
For decades parents have been bullied into voting yes with threats of devastating cuts and guilt trips that "it only hurts the children." The deck is always stacked to spend and tax more by selectively appealing to parents, alumni, school employees and union members to make sure that every "yes" voter gets to the polls and any "no" vote is discouraged.
As taxpayers were beginning to believe the governor that "help is on the way" with the tax cap, some districts were already at work on how to get out the 60 percent vote required to override the cap. And they still get two chances to pass their plan. The strategy for some districts will be to first put up higher proposals in an attempt to override the cap -- since they can fall back to a 2 percent budget increase in the second go-round.
Contrary to what voters are told at budget time, funding is more than sufficient. More money is not the answer -- local control by the people paying the taxes is. Many school districts are holding on to significant reserves, which could be used to keep most programs intact. Steep enrollment declines should have lowered the number of teachers and staff, but so far have not. Long Island school districts' per-student costs average $24,000, well over the $18,000 statewide figure. The average elementary-school teacher salary here is over $86,000; in my district in East Islip, the median base pay this year is $102,000.
Voters must be made aware they now have a big stick to wield to keep district spending in check. If taxpayers vote "no" two times, there is no budget increase at all. But if they don't show up at the polls the tax cap could be another failed attempt to rein in school taxes.
For the first time in recent history, by voting "no" taxpaying homeowners and businesses can control their taxes whether the budget is within the cap or not. The challenge is getting turned-off voters back to the polls and back to voting on their school budget and electing good school board candidates. Voters can force schools to reform by freezing the tax levy.
Andrea Vecchio is an activist with East Islip TaxPAC and LIFER (Long Islanders for Educational Reform).