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School districts should proceed cautiously before deciding to break the tax cap

Here’s the problem with New York school leaders’ fears about the effect of the tax cap on next year’s school budgets: They’re thinking like public officials in the State of New York. That won’t work.

It’s not as though school districts aren’t facing a conundrum. They are. School superintendents have never liked the state’s tax cap, enacted at the behest of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to rein in the runaway burden of property taxes paid by New Yorkers. Those taxes are some of the highest in the nation, and school taxes comprise the largest chunk of them by far.

The tax cap formula is linked to the inflation rate. Based on plunging fuel prices and other factors, school districts next year seem destined for a cap increase of zero percent. The rate can vary somewhat by district, but the bottom line is that the total amount of money raised by the school districts – that is, the tax levy – legally cannot break that cap unless voters approve it with a supermajority of 60 percent.

Holding the line on the tax levy would be challenging in any state, but especially so in the tax-happy state of New York. The culture in this state, from Albany to villages, has been to spend rather than conserve. It’s the path of least resistance, especially given the labor climate in New York and a state law that leans heavily in favor of public-sector unions and away from taxpayers.

Appropriately, school leaders around the state are already worrying about how to balance the pressures from parents – for smaller class sizes, sports, music and more – with the financial pressure of a zero percent increase in taxes. Predictably, though, many are preparing to reach first for the relief valve, hoping to persuade 60 percent of voters to approve a budget that breaks the cap.

That’s a risky tactic. As a practical matter, voters around the state have disproportionately rejected budgets that break the cap. Many of those voters may want the best for their children, but they also want an education bureaucracy that acknowledges the financial reality facing New York taxpayers: They’re under enormous pressure, too.

What New York schools really need is to re-engineer the way they operate. That doesn’t mean tinkering around the edges, but really looking at systems that would create greater efficiencies while delivering better outcomes among students.

There are obstacles. The state labor statute known as the Taylor Law vests disproportionate influence with the teachers unions. A related provision known as the Triborough Amendment makes matters worse by disincentivizing unions from negotiating in good faith when economic conditions aren’t in their favor.

Beyond that, New York State has been expert at jamming unfunded mandates into school district budgets, raising expenses without providing any help in meeting them.

That’s what school districts need to deal with, and while it is difficult, it’s the task nonetheless. It’s one of the reasons they need to re-imagine how they deliver education, and that is the real value of the tax cap to New Yorkers. Taxpayers need more creativity – which is not defined as gimmickry – in their leadership. So, for that matter, does state government.

School officials should not hesitate to put all the pressure they can on the governor and state legislators regarding the unfairness of labor statutes and unfunded mandates, but they must also recognize those factors won’t change quickly or easily.

First and foremost, just like private-sector businesses, they need to look at re-engineering their operations when conditions change. And change, they have. Districts need to follow suit.