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As state aid rises and enrollments fall, why don’t taxes drop?

The schools flunk at cutting spending.

The schools flunk at cutting spending. Credit: iStock

For eight years, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has made holding the line on state spending a calling card. Across-the-board budget increases, he says, have been under 2 percent each year, and that includes the $168 billion plan just finalized for 2018-19.

Yet state aid to schools has skyrocketed, even as many other state agencies and initiatives have dealt with flat or shrinking funding.

On Long Island, state aid to schools will reach $3.2 billion next year, a 55 percent increase since the 2011-12 school year. That’s smart politics, because for many taxpayers, schools are the top priority, and the property-tax cap Cuomo pushed through in 2011 would have faced continuous opposition had he not cushioned the blow with additional aid. It might also be smart governance, because nothing is more important to a state than the quality of its children’s educations.

But many school districts — as they raise their taxes as much or nearly as much as the cap allows to supplement Albany’s growing aid — haven’t tightened their belts at all. Some are increasing spending significantly even as enrollments drop rapidly. And that can’t be allowed to go on, particularly as many Long Islanders face the equivalent of a huge tax increase thanks to a $10,000 limit on federal deductions for state and local property taxes.

If the state takes over more of the burden of funding schools, shouldn’t we get breaks on local taxes? With the average Long Island school district getting a 3.57 percent increase in state aid, why are local district taxes predicted to increase by 2.6 percent, too?

The biggest wins and losses in state school funding are mostly caused by big enrollment increases or declines. And the budgets of districts serving fewer students speak loudest about why taxpayers never see taxes go down. The schools flunk at cutting spending.

State aid for the Smithtown district, which has seen enrollment declines for at least eight years, will drop by 1.56 percent next year. In the 2010-11 school year, Smithtown served 10,810 students with a budget of $211 million. This year there are 8,929 students in the district, a decline of 17 percent. But the budget for 2017-18 is $239 million. In seven years, Smithtown has gone from spending $19,518 per student to $26,766.

That’s an increase of 37 percent over a period when total inflation was 13 percent. And it’s the norm. Massapequa, with a 1.95 percent reduction in state aid next year, went from spending $22,032 per student in 2010-11 to $28,242 in 2017-18, an increase of 28 percent. The budget is up $18 million in seven years, and enrollment is down 1,105 students.

It’s not hard to see why. The Smithtown school board promises to reduce elementary classroom sizes this fall for the second year in a row. That’s fantastic, if local taxpayers want to support it, though it’s troubling that it’s increasingly taxpayers statewide, who get no vote on the budget, footing the bill.

In Massapequa, the school district overestimated expenses by nearly $25 million over three years. That keeps taxes high.

School budget votes are in May. Now is a good time to ask superintendents to show their math. Explain why taxes don’t fall even when state funding goes up, and there are fewer kids to teach.