Sunday, February 05, 2006

Taking On School Taxes: Many Choices; Few Options

Levy Looks To Shore Up Leaks In School District Levees

Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy is making some noise in the school yard, talking of consolidations, replacing the property tax with an income tax, and electing school Superintendents.

The New York Times reports that Levy’s call for the popular election of Superintendents arises out of a sense that “the system clearly needs more accountability.” [SEE, Politics and the Schoolhouse.]

Of course, we all know that elections and accountability don’t always – or usually – go hand in hand, and evidence the election of judges versus their appointment as case studies on accountability and competence, not to mention fairness and impartiality.

The call for the election of school Superintendents is a talking point – a headline designed to grab the attention of the public. That it does. Beyond this seemingly democratic notion, however, lies a stark reality – that the voting public holds no special edge in selecting “leaders” – be they Presidents or school Superintendents – who are competent, judicious, and accountable to their will. As for the ballot box fending off corruption, well, the record (Congressional and otherwise) speaks for itself.

Scandal is not unique to School Districts, and what better measure of accountability than to have a duly elected School Board, whose Trustees, in theory, have at least a modicum of expertise (either by background or acquired knowledge), select a Superintendent. Then again, we assume here that voters elect competent, courageous, and accountable residents to serve as Trustees. We rest our case. Whether we butt heads with the rock or with the hard place, you can bet that our heads will get the worst of it.

Other recommendations are being floated, and at least some of them warrant closer examination.

1. Consolidation of School Districts.

When Patrick Halpin was Suffolk County Executive, a study commissioned by him suggested consolidating suffolk’s 71 school district’s into 30, saving (in 1990s dollars) $55 million a year. The proposal was rejected by the voters, with Halpin telling The Times, “There was a greater allegiance to football teams than to the taxpayers.”

Ah, that old provincialism clouding common sense – not to mention dollars and cents. “If you ask people if they believe there’s too much government, they say yes,” Halpin told The Times. “But if it means merging a local school district or water company, then people will rebel and revolt against it." [Add to the list fire districts and sanitary districts, among others. As long as each community believes there is a need – or worse, an entitlement – to its own sanitary district, fire department, or school system, there will be duplication, there will be excess, and there will be a high price to pay to support these self-indulgent fiefdoms.]

2. Cap property taxes.

Assemblyman Fred Thiele has proposed a cap on property taxes for households with less than $200,000 in annual income.

“Cap” at what? The present level? Half that? Twice the going rate? And since when does the property tax have anything to do with income?

Capping the tax does not cap the costs, particularly when a majority of a school district’s expenses are contractual or mandated (and not funded). Who covers the “gap” under a “cap?”

3. “The check is in the mail.”

Governor George Pataki has proposed a rebate of $400 to homeowners in districts that limit annual spending increases to 4 percent.

Wow. 400 bucks. That’ll make a real dent in our property tax bill, won’t it? [Don’t spend that rebate check just yet. When was the last time your school district held the line at 4 percent?]

4. One Budget, one vote!

State Senator Charles Fuschillo has proposed banning the re-vote of failed school budgets, giving voters one shot at avoiding austerity.

Not a bad idea. We don’t get a “do-over” if we don’t like the outcome of other elections, do we?

CAUTION: On the last budget-go-round, we saw contingency budgets that were actually higher than the budgets residents were voting on. Vote down the budget and pay more? Only on Long Island. [Senator Kenneth LaValle has proposed that districts be required to show residents a side-by-side comparison of the budget to be voted on and the contingency budget.]

5. Run schools like the multi-million dollar businesses they are.

Senator LaValle has also suggested that school districts hire Superintendents who are not just educators, but who have business savvy.

Every district already has an Assistant Superintendent for Business (or its equivalent), yet another six figure salary to pay. Granted, an Ed.D. does not necessarily make you a better school administrator, but hiring an MBA provides no guarantee that you won’t have an Enron or WorldCom on your hands.

6. Make them take “no” for an answer.

The suggestion has been made – though rarely by elected officials – that School Boards need to sharpen their pencils and begin to cut costs. While the theme has always been cutting costs across the board – from top to bottom – the reality, more often than not, has yielded cuts in educational programs and extracurricular initiatives, leaving administrators' and teachers' remuneration largely unscathed.

The buck has to stop somewhere, and one place to start is with those pie in the sky salaries paid to Superintendents, Assistant Superintendents, Principals, Assistant Principals, and, yes, quite a few of our teachers – particularly those on the higher end of the food chain who look to sweeten their lots in order to fatten their pension pots.

School Boards need to take a hard look at what they are spending, and take a hard line in negotiations with everyone from District Superintendents to building custodians. The era of the golden fleece is over. It may be a hard pill for some to swallow (especially the union reps), but hey, if you don’t like it, take a walk. [And if you do walk, remember the State’s Taylor Law.] We sense there are qualified administrators and teachers by the dozen, grossly underpaid and waiting in the wings in NYC, to step right in!

7. Share the wealth.

Commercial property taxes should be apportioned among all school districts in the County in which they are collected.

Is there any reason that the tax revenues generated by, say, Roosevelt Field should go exclusively to the Uniondale and Garden City School Districts? Equity and reason say no.

8. Replace the school portion of the property tax with a dedicated income tax.

An idea whose time is long overdue. Like consolidation, however, until we change the mindset of residents that a property tax, based solely on the market value (in today’s dollars) of one’s home, is somehow preferable – and less onerous – than a nominal, graduated income tax, based on one’s ability to pay, Long Islanders will be obliged to dig deeper into their wallets to finance our schools, and, in many instances, will continue to throw good money after bad.
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  1. Well, we need to do something, don't we?

    Consolidating districts is a great idea. How about a regional school system?

    NYC has a central school system, serving one million students, and yet, no community has to give up "allegiance" to a local high school's football team. It could work in Nassau and suffolk, and we'd all save a bundle on the new-found bargaining power alone.

    Replacing the property tax with an income tax - yes, yes, yes. Don't count on it happening, though. With an election in November, I don't think that our State legislators will have the stomach for it (unless, of course, voters give them a reason in May to think twice about leaving the status quo intact).

  2. Whoa, Nellie.

    Are you suggesting that we shortchange our teachers, fire them if they strike for better wages and working conditions, and bring in second-rate "scabs" from the city to take their places?

    You don't attract the best and the brightest with an inadequate wage or by playing hardball with those who dedicate themselves to giving our children a top-notch education.

    Let's not cut off our noses in spite of our faces.

  3. Hold on there, East Meadow Educator. I wouldn’t call median salaries for Long Island’s teachers hovering around $80,000 as being “shortchanged.” With many teachers making in excess of $100,000 a year, I hardly think that “wages” should even be an issue (although they always seem to be, first and foremost).

    Now I’m not knocking teachers or the significance of their accomplishments. After all, my wife is one of those “second rate” NYC teachers you berate (going on 18 years now), whose equally “second rate” colleagues work for half the pay of their Long Island counterparts, in conditions that are far from the suburban utopia that most Long Island teachers enjoy.

    My wife will tell you that being a teacher isn’t easy. What is these days? Still, being a teacher on Long Island and a teacher in NYC is like day and night. Long Island’s teachers have it darn good, in fact, and compared to the average worker on Long Island – in terms of wages, benefits, vacation time and pensions – live the life of Riley.

    No one is saying not to give educators and administrators their due. All that is being suggested is that there has to be an end to the “more, more, more,” and a limit to how much taxpayers can be asked or expected to pay.

    Educators and administrators alike should stop the bellyaching. If you choose to “dedicate” yourself to the public good, you have to accept that there are bounds to what the public can afford. In my opinion, those bounds in many of Long Island’s school districts have already been exceeded, by far.