Thursday, May 11, 2006

Rules Of Engagement

Voting As If Tomorrow Will Never Come

Long Islanders have had a growing fascination with the annual rite of spring, the school budget vote, and have taken a certain satisfaction in recent years in exercising the economic equivalent of throwing the baby out the window with the bath water, in voting the budgets down.

The propensity to "just say no" could stem from the budget process being one of the few things Long Islanders believe they have ultimate control over. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth.

Budgets are encumbered with line item after line item of that which is mandated -- either by contract or by law -- and that which is unavoidable -- like transportation and insurance costs.

The fact remains that, even after cutting local school budgets to their bare bones (or to what school board trustees perceive as such), the net increase in the tax rate to be levied against the poor property owner is rarely much more than the increase to be had under so-called austerity. Sometimes -- as it is this year in three Long Island school districts -- the "contingency" budget, as fallback, actually calls for a higher percentage increase in the tax rate than does the proposed budget. Call it "lose-lose" for the taxpayer.

If historical indicators hold true, about the same number of residents will come out on Tuesday, May 16th to vote "no" as have voted with disfavor on such referenda in the past. The saving grace for those budgets that do pass is the school districts' ability to get out the "yes" vote -- those who mistakenly assume that the budget will go through (and their kids will be educated) without their help; those who believe, erroneously so, that their vote doesn't count; and those who have deemed themselves absolved from the obligation by reason of the busy lives they lead.

There is a burgeoning movement afoot, playing into the frustrations of a disgruntled and overtaxed electorate, whose credo is: "It's the spending." They encourage a "no" vote not as the mere protest of "send 'em a message," but under some misguided belief that in voting down the school budget, their property tax bills will, at the end of the day, be lower.

"We're forcing them to make cuts," said one Seaford resident, asking not to be identified. [Why is it that those who vote "no" never want to be recognized for their forward-thinking accomplishments?] "If we vote down the budget, it will save us money!"

Reality, of course, recognizes a different scenario. If we vote down the budget, the district still has to pick up the tab for contractual obligations, the expense for heating and lighting the schoolhouse, and for all of those unfunded initiatives that Washington and Albany tell us the district must provide lest it chance losing the paltry 12% the State may throw it's way. [And just how much money did your school district get from Washington last year? That "no child" is lagging farther behind every time we glance in the rear-view mirror, isn't he?]

What does go the way of the 2 cent stamp and the Tyrannosaurus when school budgets are defeated are all the goodies we, as suburbanites, treasure about our precious schools -- the arts, the sciences, the sports, the extracurriculars, and, oh, yeah, things like textbooks, computers, and the educational resources that give our students the academic edge.

Does it lower our property tax when we vote "no?" Well, answer that one by looking at the bottom line of the tax bills of property owners in districts where budgets have been defeated. The answer is an obvious "no" (chiefly, as we at The Community Alliance rarely ask a question that we don't already know the answer to! LOL).

Is there room to trim school budgets? Absolutely! This entails some effort on the part of district residents not only in understanding the budget process, but in actually getting involved in it, at least to a point beyond simply showing up on that Tuesday in May to vote "no" -- or not bothering to show at all, the moral equivalent of the "no" vote.

Keeping a lid on costs means being engaged on the home-front. Fielding and electing candidates to the school board who are fiscally prudent and financially responsible; attending school board meetings and bouncing ideas and opinions off of the trustees; participating in educational forums through PTA and other education-oriented community organizations; volunteering for site-based teams and oversight committees; actually coming out to the annual school budget hearings to review the proposed budget and to offer input. [How many of the "no" voters did you see at this year's school budget hearings? Okay, so the "yes" voters and the "non" voters were no shows as well. Our point exactly!]

Clearly, the majority of residents are not engaged in the education of our children, let alone the affairs of our communities. We haven't savored the stew in quite some time, so we decide that it is better to throw out the old and dented pot rather than to alter our grandmother's time-honored recipe.

The recipe for real change on school funding comes not from "let's show them" budget defeats. The problem is more deeply rooted, and requires a change in thinking among those who formulate both policy and aid formulae -- notably, our elected State legislators in Albany.

If you really want to significantly reduce that bottom line -- without the "out of one pocket, into the other" approach of STAR or the politically motivated "rebate" -- you'd be best disposed to keep the programs that enrich our children's education, and concentrate on going after the real culprits -- the folks who insist on funding schools through a regressive property tax and the inequitable State Aid formulae.

And if you really want to empower yourselves over matters of education and how teaching Johnny and Jane to read is paid for, give your "no" vote the punch it deserves -- hold it until November 7th, when you can use it to send a message to those fixtures in Albany, as in, "Which part of 'no' don't you understand?"
- - -
The Children Of Our Community Are Our Community's Future
Tuesday, May 16th
(contact your local school district for polling places and hours)

No comments:

Post a Comment