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Tax cap exacted a high cost from school districts

As evidence that "the tax cap worked," a recent Another Voice column cites New York State School Boards Association statistics indicating that 99 percent of school budgets staying within the tax levy cap were approved by voters. The article did not share these additional statistics from NYSSBA:

*To bring budgets in "under the cap," 63.8 percent of school districts cut teaching positions, and 65.8 percent cut non-teaching positions.

*53.2 percent of districts increased class sizes, 43.5 percent reduced electives, 35.9 percent reduced or eliminated extracurricular activities/athletics.

*Another 30.9 percent reduced transportation, 29.9 percent deferred maintenance, and 22.6 percent reduced extra help for students.

Moreover, the article underestimates the extent of the conversational "paradigm shift" over school property taxes. Schools are beyond asking, "In a time of limited resources, what programs do we need to ensure school quality?" In many districts, the conversation is, "How do we avoid financial — and educational — insolvency?"

Budgets may have passed, but fund balances have been spent. Administrators, teachers, aides, bus drivers and other support staff lost their jobs. School districts cannot fire the same people, or cut the same program, twice. It bought time. It did not solve the problem.

With the tax levy cap and cap on school aid growth, structural deficits averaging 28 percent are projected for school districts by 2016-17. With 75 percent of budgets typically going to personnel costs, the deficit cannot be closed by the remaining 25 percent, observes the New York State School Superintendents Association.

Because most school costs are fixed, it was promised that significant mandate relief would accompany tax levy cap legislation. That did not happen. Major cost drivers march on, including pensions, health benefits and various contractual agreements made in different times that live on regardless of a community's current ability to pay.

School district fund balances likely will be used up. There will not be the financial capacity to replace them, nor to address deferred expenses involving facilities and equipment, and staffing and expenses related to Race to the Top.

Few would argue against leveling aid and capping taxes as appropriate tools to "right size" in a time of declining enrollment. The challenge will be to not allow budget-cutting to reign as unchecked as budget growth once did.

It is premature to offer kudos to the governor, the State Legislature or even school districts themselves. Whether the cap "works" for public education ultimately will be proven by whether less funding produces better schools, and whether we can reduce cost without sacrificing value. 

Jane Burzynski is executive director of the Erie County Association of School Boards.