Another round of school budget votes came and went last week, and voters in our coverage area approved every one of them.
But, let’s not pat ourselves on the back. The continued low turnout indicates that the average resident is willing to go along with school budgets that cut services and staff, and yet still take the lion’s share of our property tax dollars.
The trouble is, people should be taking a keener interest in what’s going on with our school districts at all stages — from the decreasing state contributions and the way those dollars are allocated to the everyday decisions that aren’t even tied to budget time like programming choices and personnel issues.
As Bethlehem resident and longtime school board gadfly (and we mean this as a compliment) Philip Carter recently pointed out in a letter to the editor that appears online at spotlightnews.com, it’s “a disgraceful reflection on the community” when people don’t participate in school board votes or question board members at meetings. Even though we don’t always share Carter’s views, this is one we most fervently agree with.
Take a look at what happened in the South Colonie Central School District. People initially turned out in droves to protest the dismissal of a popular physical education teacher and varsity football coach due to budget cuts. But when it came time to go to the polls May 20, only 2,448 votes were cast with 1,693 in favor of the $95.2 million budget, which also included cuts to the transportation staff.
Maybe voters were satisfied with the explanations they received from South Colonie school administrators during the budget debates, or maybe they felt like it didn’t matter what they thought and they should just vote for it. Either way, they were quick to accept a budget that leaves a football team searching for a new coach and several bus drivers scrambling for additional income now that they are forced to become part-time workers.
Of course, voters might also be motivated by Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s incentive of tax rebates for communities that approve local and school budgets that remain within the state’s tax cap limits. As we pointed out four months ago, this incentive doesn’t address the issue of how municipalities and school districts can continue to give their residents the services they desire with less money coming from both tax revenue and state aid. All some voters see is their share of a $2 billion tax relief initiative, despite the fact that a tax cap falsely assumes that one size fits all New York school districts.
Voorheesville Central School District Board of Education President Timothy Blow talked about the issue of making do with less following last week’s vote, in which residents approved the district’s $22.7 million budget. He said between the tax cap restrictions and the rising costs of retirement benefits and healthcare the school district faces, it “makes it difficult to do anything” when it comes to offering programs for students.
This is the tricky part. School districts could ask taxpayers to pick up a greater share of the tab by going above the tax cap, but recent history teaches us that it’s an exercise in futility because those budgets have not normally received the number of “yes” votes necessary to pass them. Meanwhile, the state continues to restrict the amount of aid given to school districts to help them meet their obligations. And with the possible implementation of Common Core lurking a few years down the road, school districts are at a loss as to how to balance their budgets.
Voters, too, seem to be at a loss. They don’t want to see more services and personnel cut, but they don’t want their taxes to rise significantly. So either they’re ready to accept some cuts either by voting “yes” to budgets within the tax cap, or they just stay home.
We don’t have a solution to this problem, but we believe people should be more involved in the process of finding solutions. That begins by being more involved in their school districts and letting their state legislators know how they feel about the state of education in New York.