67° Good Evening
67° Good Evening

Editorial: Tax cap a powerful weapon in school votes

A sign urging for a

A sign urging for a "yes" vote across from Baldwin Middle School as Long Islanders prepare vote tomorrow on school budget and board elections. (May 20, 2013) Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa

The results of Tuesday's school budget votes are in, and it looks like the property tax cap is not only holding down increases in spending, it's also acting as a sort of "Good Budgeting Seal of Approval" for proposed budgets. That's a fine thing, particularly when taken with national, state and local per-pupil spending information released this week that shows just how far out of line school spending has gotten on Long Island.

Of the 124 districts in Nassau and Suffolk counties, seven tried to garner the 60 percent affirmative votes necessary to exceed the 2 percent cap on growth in property taxes. Six of those seven failed.

Of the 118 districts that proposed a budget within the cap, all 118 saw their plans pass.

Admittedly, the budgets that did not bust the cap only needed a bare majority to pass, but most of those Long Island districts garnered more than 60 percent approval.

Statewide, the numbers were nearly as lopsided. New York voters approved 98 percent of budgets that stayed within the cap, but only 30 percent of those that exceeded it. In affluent Scarsdale, where a school budget has not been defeated since 1970, an attempt to exceed the cap brought a quadrupling of voter turnout over last year, and a big defeat for the spending plan.

Even beyond the budget votes, some of the outcomes Tuesday were illuminating, none more so than the school board race in Syosset. The district has been roiled by accusations of secrecy, controversy over administrative salaries and a sense that the administration often controls the board. It should be the other way around. The $500,000-per-year total compensation package of Superintendent Carole Hankin has, in particular, spurred anger.

Tuesday, three new board members were elected. Two, Tracy Frankel and Rob Gershon, were part of a slate that ran on a platform of increased transparency and participation by residents in decision-making. The third winner, Susan Parker, ran independently but was supported by the administration.

These new members will join 19-year-old board member Josh Lafazan, who has been a thorn in the administration's side since his win last year while still a student at Syosset High School, and fellow board critic Christopher DiFilippo, also elected last year. The only losing candidate, William Weiner, was also a member of the reform slate, so it was not a clean sweep. But it is telling that the nine-member board now includes four "reformers." Unlike in past years, this time there wasn't a full group of candidates supported by (and supportive of) the administration on the ballot.

According to data released this week, the average cost of educating a student in the United States was $10,560 in 2011. The average in New York was $19,076, tops in the nation. And on Long Island, the average per-pupil spending was $26,052.

That's 37 percent higher than the state average, and 147 percent higher than the national average. Seen in that light, it's no longer a question of stopping the madness of school spending on Long Island. That ship has sailed. The only hope now is to contain it, and voters, with this "Good Budgeting Seal of Approval," look like they've seized on an effective weapon in the fight.