In 2012, the year the cap on property taxes championed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo took effect, 17 Long Island school districts asked voters to approve an annual tax hike above the limit. They needed 60 percent of the vote, a supermajority, to bust the cap. Of those 17, seven failed, and five of the 10 that passed were on the East End, where districts are small and taxes are relatively modest.
The education of the school districts at the hands of the people had begun.
Last year, none of Long Island’s 124 school districts tried to exceed the cap, which is the rate of inflation or 2 percent, but which can vary due to exceptions for pension contribution changes, debt and expansion of the tax base due to new development.
This year, two Long Island districts, Greenport and North Bellmore, could vote to exceed the cap on May 15. But the overall trend is tacking toward smaller increases. Fifty-two districts are proposing hikes lower than the full amount the cap allows, and 20 of those fall short of the cap by at least a full percentage point.
The districts are learning, even if the teachers unions and many of New York’s liberal politicians are not.
When Working Families Party gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon said recently that she opposed both the property-tax cap and the 2 percent annual increases Cuomo has clamped on the state budget, she was echoing labor unions and many of the state’s city-centric Democratic politicians, but defying the state’s voters and suburbanites particularly.
Seventy-three percent of voters supported the 2 percent cap on property taxes, according to a 2015 Siena College Research Institute poll.
Some school officials say they now know they can’t propose increases of more than 2 percent even if the hikes fall under the cap. A few fear raising taxes at all. They’re holding the line even as they increase campus security with guards, remote locking and unlocking doors, and surveillance systems that parents and educators want in the wake of recent school shootings.
Modest proposals have taken hold in all kinds of communities. In Syosset, where the sky had always been the limit when it came to what residents would pay for schools, the tax cap this year is 3.57 percent, but the proposed levy increase is just 2.26 percent. In Central Islip, a district that has traditionally endured both poor student performance and high teacher salaries bargained by a powerful union shop, the cap is 3.09 percent this year, but the levy increase is 1.69 percent.
The tax cap has changed the equation in all kinds of districts, for all kinds of taxpayers, for the better. Tax increases that averaged 6 percent annually for the decade before the cap went into effect have averaged about one-third of that in the years since.
This reduction in the rate of tax increases is good news, but it’s also just a good start. Despite predictions of disaster from the New York State United Teachers union and its political allies, there is little sense that since the cap was instituted in 2012 education has suffered. Of course, it’s impossible to measure exactly how much students are learning, especially on Long Island, because the opt-out movement largely orchestrated by NYSUT has convinced parents of half the region’s third- through eighth-grade students to boycott the annual standardized tests mandated by the state and federal governments. But overall, education has not fallen apart in the absence of annual 6 percent tax increases. And teachers in some districts have begun to do their part by forgoing raises and even contributing to their health care.
Many districts have added courses and extracurriculars of late, and reduced class sizes. Dozens of Long Island districts have been slammed by the state comptroller for holding millions more dollars in reserve than is legal, rather than returning that money to taxpayers. Overall spending is steadily increasing even in districts where enrollment is declining.
This is partly because Cuomo has bailed out districts with hugely increased funding. State aid to schools on Long Island will reach $3.2 billion next year, up 55 percent in seven years.
But state aid, like property taxes, cannot be allowed to grow faster than the incomes of state taxpayers. Any growth in taxes will be met with growing opposition by overburdened taxpayers whose plight has worsened with the loss of federal deductions for state and local taxes.
Long Island districts spend a fortune on more than 120 administrations and have done little to increase efficiency and quality by using technology and other innovative methods targeted to the skills and needs of each student. Eventually, they will have to make substantive changes. To keep taxes lower, the state must look at all cost drivers, from special education to administrative demands, and will have to curtail the state aid increases that let districts stay the course.
The numbers show the lessons are getting through, but there are more and harder tests coming for districts that won’t control spending and for politicians who don’t think they should have to.