Press-Republican

June 16, 2011

Educators debate property-tax cap

STEPHEN BARTLETT
Press-Republican

PLATTSBURGH — A property-tax cap without substantial mandate relief and a real attempt to equitably fund public schools would damage public education and hurt students, say area school leaders.

"There cannot be a property-tax cap until there is major mandate relief and not just lip service," said Malone Central School Superintendent Wayne Walbridge. "If the 2-percent property-tax cap flies, schools will be in trouble.

"We want to make sure we have a good program for our students."

New York may soon realize one of the toughest tax-cap measures in the nation. Gov. Andrew Cuomo and legislative leaders have reached a preliminary agreement to a 2-percent limit on property-tax increases annually. The tax cap, which must be approved by the State Legislature, whose session ends June 20, is an attempt to clip the wings of soaring property-tax bills across the state.

New Yorkers pay some of the highest property taxes in the nation.

RELIEF REQUIRED

Business groups are embracing the tax cap, while teachers' unions fear it would weaken public-school programs and harm students, especially the neediest ones.

Property taxes support more than half of many schools' budgets in the North Country, and the tax-cap agreement would limit the yearly increase in the amount of property taxes school districts and local governments could collect.

"With any kind of change like that, we are still hoping for relief from all those other areas that are important, such as unfunded mandates," said AuSable Valley Central School Superintendent Paul Savage. "There definitely needs to be relief from mandates, and it has to be significant, not just small token items. It has to be substantial, where schools are able to see some savings."

'TOKEN GESTURES'

The agreement carries provisions sensitive to the needs of schools.

Districts' contributions to the State Retirement System and pension increases would be factored into the cap each year; they would be able to adjust tax levies when new development increases the tax base. A tax levy increase of more than 2 percent could be approved, as long as it carried the approval of at least 60 percent of a local school budget vote, a tall order under typical circumstances and especially difficult in areas that are economically depressed where voter turnout is usually low.

But educators consider those token gestures.

New York State United Teachers says the property-tax cap would "erode" student progress and "devastate" schools. Thousands would lose their jobs, class sizes would balloon and programs would suffer, with the possible loss of early childhood programs, music, art, guidance and athletics. It would further result in unequal access and opportunity and widen the achievement gap for disadvantaged children, the union says.

"I think it will have an impact on schools, especially those in tough situations already," Savage said.

School officials need help contending with soaring costs in the areas of health care, energy, special education and Retirement System contributions, he said.

"Without relief, the property-tax cap would only make the problem bigger," Savage said. "If you are already in the hole, it will be hard to come out of that if a cap is put on. You don't want to widen the gap between the haves and have-not schools because that impacts kids."

A MATTER OF EQUITY

The property-tax cap focuses on the revenue side of operations, said Peru Central School Superintendent A. Paul Scott, who hopes lawmakers address what is behind the increase in expenditures for school districts and the matter of equity.

He pointed to the variability in New York in terms of per-student spending, specifically the fact that some districts spend much more on students than others do. That, along with inadequate state aid and unfunded mandates, makes the property tax cap a potentially dangerous possibility for public schools.

"If New York state continues to freeze or reduce state aid for school districts while at the same time placing a cap on property-tax levies, that presents a severe impact on the near-term future, particularly for the state's less wealthy communities that don't have the reserve funds available or multi-year planning you might see in more economically advantaged communities," Scott said. "For any given community, how much time before there is substantial adversity being faced by residents and children and individuals that provide public-education services?"

Email Stephen Bartlett at: sbartlett@pressrepublican.com