In their cluelessness, they might have done us all a favor.
Clarence school officials’ tone-deaf try for a massive school-tax spike Tuesday prompted outraged citizens to leave their homes in record numbers, battle traffic gridlock and endure long voting lines at the high school.
The voters’ resounding beat-down of the proposed 9.8 percent insult did more, I think, than send a message. It gave tax-weary voters across upstate a strategic blueprint and direct points of attack against ever-inflating school budgets.
Chronically ballooning school costs prompted state lawmakers last year to impose a presumably digestible tax-hike ceiling. The cap, variably upward of 2 percent, was breakable only by a 60 percent majority vote. So it was audacious, to put it mildly, for Clarence officials to try to force-feed a 9.8 percent mouthful to tax-stuffed citizens. Nearly 60 percent of voters predictably upchucked.
In a school district landscape of shrinking enrollments and spiraling costs, something has to give. The sonic boom emanating Tuesday from Clarence was the sound of one community saying, “Enough!”
“People were shocked,” Marlese Wacek said of the 9.8 percent spike. “Where does it stop?”
We sat Wednesday on the double-wide porch of her white, wood-framed house. Despite the comfortable digs, a 1990 Corolla in the garage testified to family frugality. Wacek, a former teacher with three grown kids, is agreeably chatty, dresses in pastels and has district facts and figures hard-wired into her personal mainframe. She was prompted last year by the town’s proposal for a new ice rink to join Clarence Tax Payers, a grass-roots anti-tax group. She went door-to-door in recent weeks, urging a “No” vote on the district budget from neighbors whose annual school taxes can bump up to $5,000.
“What’s happening here,” she told me, “is not unique to this year, or to Clarence.”
I think she has that right.
Make no mistake: Come budget-approval time, officials in every school district are masters at pushing parents’ emotional buttons and propping up false choices. It goes like this: Vote for the budget, or you will force us to cut (choose your poison) sports/music/field trips/foreign language.
The two anti-tax groups in Clarence were not buying it. But they went beyond a simple Just Say No. Instead, they paved a path to Do This Instead. Rather than cut programs, the “No” flag bearers insisted that the district instead carve personnel costs.
The strategy strikes at the heart of the “expense” problem for any school system. About 70 cents of every budget dollar in Clarence – typical for a district – go to teacher and administrator salaries, benefits and pensions. Suggested tax-relief remedies from Wacek’s group ranged from teachers and administrators being paid less, to paying more for their health care, to buyouts for veteran teachers – as many as 100 of whom in Clarence make upward of $90,000 a year.
“We are not asking teachers to do anything more than people do in the private sector,” Wacek said. “My husband works for DuPont. He pays 32 percent of his health care costs.”
The anti-tax group’s strategy and suggestions sound to me like the wave of the future, here and across tax-beleaguered upstate. Even milk-and-honey suburbs such as Clarence, arguably the home to more McMansions per capita than any Western New York suburb, suffer from stagnant population and shrinking school enrollment. Yet folks face ever-higher school taxes, inflated by teacher and administrator salaries, pensions and health care costs.
It is partly a product of decades of chummy relations between teachers unions and the school board members and administrators who negotiate their contracts. Indeed, anti-taxers in Clarence want the district to hire an independent negotiator to replace the superintendent at the bargaining table.
“We want someone at the table,” Wacek said, “who really represents the interests of the taxpayer.”
I don’t want to overstate it, but what happened in Clarence may mark the roots of a revolution. Although budgets failed Tuesday in just five of 32 Erie-Niagara school districts, the template of fewer kids and rising costs plops just about every district in the same sinking boat.
The points of attack in Clarence on teacher salaries, benefits and pensions – and the push to jettison higher-paid veteran teachers – may re-frame the school budget debate and change the terms of engagement. It’s about time. The big savings come not from cutting programs, but from carving personnel costs.
Which is why Tuesday was not just a day of celebration for the tax-weary in Clarence. It may, across upstate, signal the start of a new day.