It may not qualify him for the Nobel Peace Prize, but it should put him in the running for Clarence’s Citizen of the Year.
Venturing where others feared to tread, my pal Drew “Wing King” Cerza last week helped the warring factions in the town’s school tax debate find common ground. A battle that pitted neighbor against neighbor cooled down after Cerza – whose people skills are rivaled only by his chicken wing-promoting powers – opened antagonists’ eyes to their common ground: preserving school quality.
Cerza’s diplomacy eased the path to Tuesday’s thumbs-up on a 3.79 percent school tax hike, which predictably was more digestible than last month’s attempted 9.8 percent force-feed.
“This was a bridge to moving forward, and we can look for long-term solutions later,” Cerza told me. “A lot of the issues weren’t on the radar before, so in that way, the 9.8 percent was almost a positive.”
I agree. I think the fracas served a larger purpose – not just in Clarence, but in every suburban school district. Virtually all of them are beset by the same problem: how to keep quality-of-school programs, in the face of rising costs and shrinking enrollments in a high-tax, economically stagnant region.
Until recently, the primary solution to inflating school costs was to raise taxes. That changed last year, with the Gov. Andrew Cuomo-inspired property tax cap (minimally 2 percent, but usually higher). It put a lid on school spending. It gave voters added muscle. It forced districts to stop regarding taxpayers’ wallets as the primary method of balancing budgets.
By so doing, the cap changed the terms of the discussion. It finally pushed to the center of the table the largest expense of any district – teacher/administrator salaries and benefits.
It was eye-opening for many to learn that more than 100 Clarence teachers or administrators make upward of $90,000 and that they pay relatively little for health care.
At the same time, music, sports and the jobs of newer teachers were on the chopping block. To a lot of people, it didn’t seem right. But I think it is a mistake to focus too much on Clarence, which was just this year’s flash point. The school salaries/benefits scenario is similar in every suburban district.
Against that backdrop, I don’t think it is unreasonable, un-American, unfair or irrational to ask teachers and administrators to be a bigger part of the school tax solution. Everything from pay freezes, to retirement incentives for veteran teachers, to administrators/teachers paying more for health care should be on the negotiating table in every district.
That is particularly true, given our larger-picture reality.
The mantra to taxpayers of Just Pay More got old a while ago. Western New Yorkers shoulder one of the highest cumulative property/school/income/sales tax loads in the country. A recent Tax Foundation study said Erie County residents pay the 11th-highest property taxes (based on housing value) in the country.
A national survey of CEOs last month ranked New York’s business climate the second-worst in the country – a jobs-hostile land of high taxes, fees and regulations. It’s not news to anybody in Erie County, from which more than 30,000 people fled over the last decade. That’s the bigger picture that frames every school tax debate.
“We’re at the breaking point with taxes, and the school tax is part of that,” said Roger Showalter, an incoming Clarence School Board member. “We are reaching the point where people are not willing to pay more.”
Details such as spending-per-pupil and tax rates may change from district to district. But the bigger picture is the same: rising school costs, shrinking population, smaller tax base.
Unless that changes, and the last I heard no Fortune 500 companies are headed our way, the continuing reality is ever-fewer people paying more to get less. It’s not a formula for success.
Western New Yorkers have been banging their heads against the tax ceiling for years.
When it comes to school costs, something else clearly has to give.
Cuomo’s tax cap force-feeds fiscal accountability to districts and puts pressure on teachers/administrators to be part of the solution.
It seems to be working. Teachers in Amherst and Cheektowaga-Sloan last year agreed to pay freezes. In West Seneca, 132 teachers and staff recently took retirement incentives. In Clarence, teacher salaries and benefits were a big part of the debate.
It was nice to see folks in Clarence find common ground Tuesday and move on. But the bigger issues and larger problems are not going away – not in Clarence, or in any other district.