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Long Island public school spending defies the cap

Wainscott School Board of Trustees, meets for a

Wainscott School Board of Trustees, meets for a public hearing about the school budget, in Wainscott on May 8, 2019. Credit: Gordon M. Grant

When Long Islanders vote on school budgets Tuesday, they will be presented with the latest in a string of annual spending plans that are not escalating as quickly as they once did but are still growing at a distressing pace. School taxes are a primary reason why this region is becoming unaffordable.

To stem that, in 2010, New York State imposed a property tax cap of 2 percent a year, or the rate of inflation, whichever is lower, to curb increases that averaged 6 percent annually in the preceding decade.

But mostly because of generous annual increases in state aid that have averaged about 4 percent a year and the exemption of certain expenses from the tax cap, school spending in Nassau and Suffolk counties has risen at nearly double the rate of inflation, despite the cap. Spending on the Island’s schools is up 18 percent since 2012-13, while inflation was just 10 percent. That’s your money, whether it’s funded by state income taxes coming through the back door or property taxes upfront.

School budgeting is complicated, and there is no simple way to conclude that these faster-than-inflation increases mean schools are overspending. However, the largest factors affecting budgets suggest spending should shrink or grow more slowly than inflation, not outpace it, particularly in Suffolk County.

The most obvious explanation for spending increasing faster than inflation would be higher enrollment, but the region has seen lower public school enrollment. Nassau saw a 1.5 percent total population increase from 2012 to 2017, but school population fell about half a percentage point, from 201,579 K-12 students to 200,886. In Suffolk, the overall population fell by four-tenths of a percent from 2012 to 2017, and school enrollment declined by more than 5 percent, from 247,139 students to 234,524.

But in both counties, school spending would increase about 18 percent from the 2012-13 school year through the 2019-20 budgets that will be voted on Tuesday.

Pension costs, a factor that school officials and teachers unions frequently cite to argue that more funding is needed, have plummeted. After the stock market crashed in 2008, pension contribution costs doubled. At the height, in the 2014-15 school year, districts had to contribute an amount equal to 17.53 percent of their payroll for pensions. But the markets recovered and the payments dropped. For the 2019-20 school year, the contribution has declined to 8.86 percent of payroll, a huge savings for districts.

So where does the money go?

To educators, mostly. When the tax cap passed, and as the economy suffered, many districts touted “no raise” contracts that were never really “no raise,” thanks to automatic annual step raises for increased seniority. Now, though, more contracts include annual raises in addition to step increases, and total hikes of 4 or 5 percent are not unheard of.

As technology progresses, school enrollments decrease, pension costs plummet and state aid grows, Long Islanders ought to get a break on property taxes. Yet the vast majority of budgets include property tax increases, and unless the results of Tuesday’s vote is a surprise, nearly all will be approved by residents, who continue to cherish their local schools but increasingly cannot afford them. — The editorial board