By now local school boards are deep into the annual budget-writing season, and once again we hear that tax increases must be kept below the 2-percent cap. We believe the time has come, however, for boards to deal head-on with the state-imposed curb by bringing spending plans that would result in exceeding the cap to voters, if necessary, or by taking serious steps toward reducing costs by consolidating districts.
Some history is necessary to understand the precarious place our schools are in thanks to the cap. In 2011, then-new Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state legislative leaders forced through a measure to provide tax relief to suburban homeowners. They had a point: New York had, and continues to have, some of the highest property tax rates in the country, although taxes on the South Fork are generally far less than in other parts of Suffolk.
The rules now hold the increase in the amount brought in by property taxes for any local government in the state to 2 percent year-over-year or to the rate of increase in the consumer price index, whichever is less, although the cap is subject to some carve-outs. Schools and municipalities can increase property taxes beyond the cap provided that they do so with 60-percent approval. This would be relatively easy for a five-member town board, for example, in which taxpayers have no direct say on budgets, but it is tough for school districts, which must present their spending plans to the voters every spring. Very few have attempted to exceed the cap, as it has turned out.
At the time the cap became law, education groups decried what they said would be negative effects on some programs and classroom quality. These fears now appear to be coming to pass. To some degree, districts stole time as the inflation rate remained flat during the Great Recession. Now, however, with costs of all sorts rising, notably salaries and utilities, pressure is increasing to find even more cuts to stay within the cap.
The effects of the 2-percent cudgel already can be seen, both on educational quality and in terms of Mr. Cuomo’s presidential ambitions, in which he is hoping to avoid the label of a tax-and-spend Democrat. In his 2014 State of the State address, Mr. Cuomo repeated the tax-cutting theme, pointing out that there are more than 2,000 separate taxing entities in the state and calling for spending reductions.
Locally, there are several examples of how the tax cap is crimping programs and harming kids. This year, the cap is set at a miserly 1.46 percent because the increase in the consumer price index is lower than 2 percent. In Springs, the board is deciding whether to skip a needed purchase of computers for students. At East Hampton High School, there have been cuts in art, home, and career classes. Middle school classes in East Hampton are packed, with as many as 30 students to a room in some cases — more than can be adequately taught, according to some teachers. And at the John Marshall Elementary School, kindergarten field trips and programs for advanced students have been eliminated, along with some take-home projects and Spanish instruction. This is not sustainable.
The quality of education provided to this community’s children will only suffer as the years go on unless something is done. Further cuts to classroom activities, essential equipment, and extracurricular programs would gravely weaken the educational system itself. We believe school district voters would support well-presented programs even if they mean a tax increase that exceeds the onerous state limit.
But if South Fork school boards cannot muster the courage to ask voters whether to exceed the cap, they must look for an alternative, and it appears that the only other option is pursuing an inevitable course toward consolidation.