Voters go the polls Tuesday in their respective school districts for the first time since a state law mandating a 2-percent cap on year-to-year tax levy increases has been in effect. As a result of tough cuts by school budget committees, this is a very different year as far as spending is concerned from those in recent memory.
The lessons of the Albany-ordered parsimony are many, but chief among them may be that double-digit annual budget increases are a thing of the past. It was not all that long ago that administrators and the board of education in one South Fork school district were patting themselves on the back for keeping a budget hike to 9 percent. Now all but one local district — Amagansett — will put budgets to the voters Tuesday while keeping under the cap. This shows that fiscal restraint can be achieved — apparently and unfortunately only when discipline is imposed from above.
One year does not a success make, however. Looking ahead a few more years, the 2-percent cap, which is not expected to keep pace with inflation or cope with increases in enrollment, may prove onerous. Voters, like those in Amagansett, would have to approve a budget by a two-thirds supermajority to go above the limit. That kind of support would be difficult for almost any district.
More leadership will be needed from Albany as schools begin to suffer from permanently diminished funding. Administrative consolidation, as well as shared purchasing consortiums, appears necessary. But there will have to be more in wage concessions, pension reform, and even program changes.
As important as education is to the future of this country, taxpayers can no longer afford any often unchecked bureaucracies. The fact that most of the state’s districts kept within the 2-percent cap demonstrates that bare-knuckled reform is possible. The real test, however, will be doing so over the long term without academic implosion, which would put New York’s public school students at a substantial disadvantage.