Schools say living within tax cap comes at a cost

May 4, 2012

On May 15th, voters across New York will go to the polls to consider school district budgets. For the first time, schools will be under the constraint of a property tax cap, and school leaders say they’ve had to make “sacrifices”  to live within those limits.

The New York State School Boards Association surveyed its members, and found that the majority of schools , 92%, are proposing budgets that are within the limits of the new tax cap. But the association’s executive director, Tim Kremer, says schools have had to cut personnel, increase class size, do away with electives and some sports teams and reduce bus runs in order to cope.

“We’re worried,” Kremer said. “This is now several years in which  we have really squeezed down the spending at the local level.”

School received a 4% increase in state aid over last year, and Kremer sys that has helped, but that follows years where billions of dollars were slashed from education aid.

“There does come a point when you are really cutting into the bone, and I think we are getting to that place,” said Kremer who says the climate feels like a “permanent recession”.

While the tax cap was promoted as a 2% limit on property tax increases per year, the School Boards, and the State Comptroller’s office, calculates that with exemptions for growing pension payments and school construction projects that are exempt from the cap, the actual increase permitted is 3%.  The average increase proposed by schools statewide is 2.3%.  That’s down more than one percentage point from last year.

Richard Iannuzzi, President of the teachers union, New York State United Teachers, calls the property tax cap “short sighted”.  He says the constraints of the cap, combined with billions of dollars in  cuts to the state budget in recent years, has led to the layoff of 30,000 school related employees since 2009,  and 7000 more layoffs are predicted this year.

“Serious reductions are being made,” Iannuzzi said. “That hurts kids.”

Despite the austere budgets that many schools plan to present to voters, NYSUT has begun an ad campaign urging voters to approve the spending plans.

Iannuzzi says because of the new rules under the property tax cap, if a school budget is rejected twice by the voters, then the school is not permitted any tax increases, at all and must live within the previous year’s budget constraints. He some parents may not realize that “even more will be lost” if the budget is defeated.

Governor Cuomo, who championed the tax cap, says the schools community is complaining too much. He says they are only being asked to live within their means, something everyone else, including school property tax payers have to do.

“They’re upset, they have to live within economic realities,” Cuomo said. “Welcome to everyone else’s world.”

And Cuomo says there are provisions in the law to allow a super majority of 60% of voters in the community to  override the constraints of the cap. He says it requires proponents of the higher taxes, though, to make the case for the increase.

“Whatever that community decides, God bless them,” Cuomo said. “It’s their money.”

The governor says the rules of the tax cap do not take away local decision making, but he says it does end the  previous system, which the governor says was on “automatic pilot” as school taxes went up year after year.