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Hard times, hard choices; School districts are paying the price for years of property tax increases

It's a day that had to come, yet there is no denying the pain it is causing. New York State needed to do something about its punitively high property taxes and in 2011, after years of ignoring the problem, it finally acted. Under the leadership of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, the state instituted a tax cap that will help restore the upstate economy and perhaps even slow the outflux of population.

But there is a price, and the down payments are being made now, as school districts across the state cope with the most difficult budgeting season in memory. Because of the tax cap, districts are having to cut programs, lay off teachers, increase class sizes and, despite all of those strategies, raise taxes, anyway. Such is the price of years of unsustainable growth.

The tax cap is different for each school district due to the state formula applied. For many districts it is in the range of 3 percent.

It is important for schools -- and all other taxing districts -- to strive to live within the cap. We have already seen the alternative, as property taxes ballooned and jobs and population fled for friendlier locations. As painful as the contractions caused by the tax cap will be, they are the necessary antidote to years of pillaging the bank accounts of New York's property owners.

There is an escape hatch for districts and other entities that want to try to break the cap -- one that school districts should avoid using. They can propose higher tax increases than the cap allows, but those increases must be approved by a 60 percent majority in a public referendum. That is a legally sanctioned evasion, but districts that immediately resort to it risk showing themselves as undisciplined and unmindful of one of the primary factors undermining upstate's prosperity.

Districts have some incentive not to try that, because if voters defeat the budget twice, the new budget will freeze taxes for the following year.

School districts will have to make adjustments, to be sure, but Donald Ogilvie, superintendent of Erie 1 BOCES, sees that as a process with an end. "The actual budget dilemma will continue for another couple years, until we get predictability and reliability of revenues coming out of the state, and until districts determine a sustainable level of programming and staffing."

In short: Things are changing. That makes for a difficult time in New York's schools, but things had to change. The status quo couldn't be maintained. New York is too far outside the national spending norms in too many areas, including education, one of the state's two biggest expenses.

It's time to be serious, as Jamie Phillips, the Lancaster School District's assistant superintendent of business and support services, said.

"I think, like with every district, [the tax cap] will bring challenges," he said. "But it's something we need to live with, so we're going to make it work."