By Kathyann Lorka
When will Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo admit that bringing school districts to financial ruin is not the same as budget tightening or “right-sizing?”
Cuomo defends the property tax levy cap, saying it limits property taxes in a state with some of the highest taxes in the nation. But the so-called 2 percent cap also limits the ability to raise enough local revenue to replace the state aid cuts from the past few years. School districts have spent down reserves, laid off staff and cut programs, and some have reduced busing and closed buildings. This is not the same as spending within one’s means; this is fiscal and educational insolvency.
To prevent such disaster, when the tax cap was first proposed, it was to come with relief from the state mandates that drive school costs. Our “relief” is a new pension tier that will take decades to take effect, while current pension tiers grow like monsters, consuming massive portions of budgets.
The governor does not take responsibility for addressing school districts’ state-mandated labor costs or state special education mandates that reach far beyond federal requirements. Instead, he resorts to declaring that New York State was able to close its $10 billion budget gap “without raising taxes and spending,” and suggests school districts do the same. He fails to mention that not funding its financial commitment to schools was one of the ways New York State closed that gap.
Is that really the governor’s recommendation – to balance school budgets by not paying our bills? Let’s try doing that in our households and see what happens. The fact is, the state’s so-called fix is now our problem, with local taxpayers footing the bill for more of the state’s share.
The governor says if districts want to spend more, just override the tax cap. Realistically, the likelihood of a tax cap override is remote. With local taxpayers already picking up so much of the state’s share of costs, how much local increase is fiscally, let alone politically, viable? He also does not mention that state law requires a 60 percent supermajority for the vote to count … so much for democracy.
How interesting that the governor says districts should consider consolidations if they are broke. So, instead of one broke school district struggling to survive, we can join several broke school districts into one big broke school district struggling to survive.
Passing the problem to local taxpayers is the easy way out. What’s needed is strong leadership and collaboration to solve the problem as equitably and fairly as possible. If things don’t change, the governor may take down the state’s education system in just one term. That is certainly not the leadership we expected when we elected him.
Kathyann Lorka is a member of the East Aurora Board of Education and chair-woman of the Erie County Association of School Boards Legislative Team.