May 26, 2013

Editorial: Trim budgets, offer new votes


---- — Local voters sent a clear message Tuesday that schools should heed in future years: Budgets that exceed the property-tax cap won’t get approved.

As it has been for years now, 2013-14 budget preparation was challenging for local administrators and school-board members. Mandated costs continued to rise with no significant steps taken by the state to mitigate the impact. Jobs and education programs were on the chopping block. And this year and last, budgets have been prepared under a tax-levy cap imposed by New York state.

All but three school districts in Clinton, Essex and Franklin counties were able to put forth budgets that were at or under their individual tax cap.

Those three — Minerva, Newcomb and Tupper Lake — paid the penalty with budget defeats. Because their budgets exceeded their allowed caps, they needed “super-majority” approval, which is a “yes” vote from at least 60 percent of the people who voted on Tuesday.

Minerva Central’s $5.1 million budget went down 177 “no” votes to 144 “yes.” Its tax-levy increase was 8.93 percent, while its allowed cap was 3.97 percent.

Newcomb Central’s $5.8 million spending plan received 111 “yes” votes to 104 “no,” but it was well short of the needed super-majority. It included a hefty 24.7 percent tax-levy increase, well above its 7.16 percent limit.

Tupper Lake Central School’s $17.2 million budget went down 685 “no” votes to 512 “yes.” Its levy increase was 8.35 percent; the state allowed 4.76.

What happened with those three local budgets was not unusual. The New York State School Boards Association reported Wednesday that, statewide, most of the districts that stayed within their caps were rewarded with budget passage.

The association said 630 district budgets passed, while just 30 were defeated. (Nine districts hadn’t yet reported results.)

In the second year of the state’s tax cap, 96 percent of the budgets were within their maximum allowable tax-levy increases. In those districts, 98.3 percent of the spending plans passed, the association reported.

But in the other 4 percent of districts, whose budgets exceeded the tax cap, only 29.6 percent passed.

The average budget passage rate since 1969 is 84 percent, the School Board Association reports, although the passage rate for the last five years has been 94 percent.

Now, Minerva, Newcomb and Tupper Lake must decide what to do about their 2013-14 budgets. They can go right to a contingency budget, which requires zero-percent growth in the tax levy and would certainly demand biting cuts. Or they can put the same budget or a revised budget up for vote on June 18.

We suggest putting scaled-back budgets before voters. With judicious cuts, and possibly cooperation from unions, the districts could do what every other school in the area did: offer voters a reasonable increase that preserves most educational programs but doesn’t weigh so heavily on taxpayers.