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Opinion

Editorial: State must help tax-capped school districts

Undated file photo of elementary school children in

Undated file photo of elementary school children in a classroom with their teacher. Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Three years after the State Legislature and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo enacted a tax cap, school districts are running out of ways to soften the blow. Pressure to control spending is rising, and the state hasn't done enough to help.

It's easy for lawmakers to tell districts to curb spending, but when they're the ones forcing districts to spend on numerous state requirements, their words have a hollow ring.

The cap, which holds annual tax hikes to 2 percent or the rate of inflation, whichever is lower, has slowed the upward spiral of property taxes. Last year's average school levy increase on Long Island was 1.57 percent. Between 1980 and 2010, school property taxes statewide increased an average of 6.3 percent per year. Such increases were unsustainable, particularly once stocks and real estate crashed and residents who had accepted growing tax bills because of booming 401(k)s and higher home values became less tolerant.

The cap can be exceeded with the approval of 60 percent of voters in districts, but school boards looking to bust caps have had little success, and the number attempting it on Long Island has steadily decreased: 17 in 2012, seven in 2013 and five in 2014. But district pension and health care costs have increased dramatically. School district employee pay has continued to go up, though salary increases have slowed in some districts. To deal with the rising expenses, many districts have made significant cuts and spent reserves.

Earlier this month, Elwood school officials said the district has nearly depleted its cash reserves and must severely cut services or bust next year's tax cap, estimated at 1.6 percent. Like many districts, Elwood has put off such moves.

Education is so expensive in New York partly because of state regulations. These cover transportation, curriculum, testing, special education, student health and athletics, among other areas. Rather than loosening requirements, the state Board of Regents recently increased costs by ordering districts to provide a bilingual education program when they have more than 20 English-language learners in one grade with the same native language. It's a stark example of "unfunded mandates."

Passing a tax cap on the districts without relaxing some of the requirements -- as was the plan when the tax cap was instituted -- is forcing difficult choices. The quality of an education on Long Island is a selling point. Teachers and staff aren't going to take pay cuts, nor should they. But the time may come when many elective courses, clubs or athletics might have to be cut.

That's not to say more can't be saved by districts. Many have overpaid administrators, and too many of them. Consolidation, both of districts and of services, is too often fought by residents, administrators and school boards.

The most important mandate of all, the Triborough Amendment, guarantees that teachers in many districts get automatic raises for longevity and educational attainment even if their contracts expire. Legislators and Cuomo have to know that changing this is the biggest key to slowing cost increases. But the subject is rarely addressed seriously, like mandate relief in general.

Nearly two years ago, Cuomo's Mandate Relief Council recommended changes that could help districts. They included loosening requirements on class size and teacher-student ratios for students with disabilities. Another biggie was getting rid of "seat-time" requirements that demand students spend a set time on units of study, rather than moving on once they've shown competence. But none of the 14 changes suggested have gone anywhere, because all education programs have constituency groups, often including powerful unions, and legislators don't want to anger them.

They'll have to. Albany stopped the huge property tax increases, and voters are glad. But if lawmakers don't allow districts to provide good educations within the confines of slower-growing budgets, voters won't stay happy long.

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