Monday, September 18, 2006

The Little County That Could

Jefferson County, NY Boasts Lowest Per Capita School Taxes In State; What Are The Rest Of Us Doing Wrong?

Last week, we reported on the counties with the highest per capita school taxes in New York -- to recap, that would be Hamilton ($2524) and Nassau ($2206), based on 2004 data. [SEE, High Taxes In New York? Boy, Are They Ever!]

Today, The Community Alliance blog focuses on the county with the lowest per capita school taxes. And that would be? Jefferson County, on the banks of Lake Ontario, where the per capita school taxes (2004) were a mere $485.

So, how do they manage to do it up in this picturesque corner of New York, known to many as the vacation wonderland of the Thousand Islands?

Could it be that there are no children to be educated in this relatively sparsely populated region of upstate New York? Maybe they're sending the kids across the water to schools in Canada, eh?

Perhaps they don't transport hundreds, if not thousands, of students by the busload to out of district private and parochial schools, saving the school districts millions of dollars.

Or, maybe, as was blogged right here back in April [READ, See Spot Run], Jefferson County's school districts are getting more than anyone's fair share of State Aid from Albany. [Just who is it that they know?]

There are 11 school districts in Jefferson County (10 if you include BOCES) Alexandria Central School District, Belleville Henderson, Carthage Central School District, General Brown Central School District, Immaculate Heart, Lyme, S. Jefferson, Central Indian River, Central Lafargeville, Sackets Harbor Central, Thousand Islands School District, Watertown Central School District.

In See Spot Run, we reported that, according to the 2006-07 School Aid Runs released by the Education Committee of the NYS Assembly, The General Brown Central School District had a minimum (before final State Aid figures were calculated over the summer) of 61% of its total budget covered by the State.

Compare that to what your school district received from Albany. [HINT: If you reside on Long Island, and your school district got as much as 15% in aid from the State, you are among the lucky ones!]

While complete budget figures for individual school districts are not readily available online (the posting of complete budgets -- both proposed and adopted -- on school district websites should be mandated by the Legislature and/or the State Education Department), we were able to secure at least some information, which again sheds some light (though not favorably) on the great disparity in State Aid between upstate districts and downstate districts.

In the Watertown School District, for instance, the 2006-07 budget called for an expenditure of $48,568,425. The final State Aid appropriation for Watertown schools for 2006-06 was $30,009,564, or nearly 62% of the total budget.

Contrast this with, say, the Long Island school district referenced in See Spot Run, where the 2006-07 budget is $48,548,512, and final aid from Albany was a paltry $6,397,009, or just a drip over 13%.

Did the folks in Albany think we wouldn't notice? Or is it their justifiable reliance on the electorate's innate inability to put two and two together?

Okay. Speak to the folks in Albany -- or even the adminisitrators is upstate school districts (where your tax dollars are picking up the majority of the tab), and they'll cite (as if by rote) chapter and verse on aid formulas, wealth differentials, disparate costs to educate a child, etcetera, etcetera.

Its all a crock, folks.

Fact is, your (income/sales/name it) tax dollars are going up to Albany, but if you live in the lower third (give or take) of New York State, they're simply not coming back. In fact, folks on Long Island, through their hard earned tax dollars, are buying leather shoes for the kids in the Watertown schools, while their own children essentially go barefoot!

Mind you, we have no objection to using tax dollars to finance public education (notice, we said PUBLIC), but where is the equity, where is the justice, heck, where is the common sense, in giving the bulk of those tax dollars to schools in Jefferson County, while the little piggies in Nassau get none -- or so little, it is the moral and practical equivalent of none?

For all of their glossy releases and campaign fluff, the downstate delegations of the New York State Legislature -- regardless of party -- have simply failed to bring home the bacon.

Then again, its not only downstaters who suffer.

Remember, Hamilton County, in the Adirondacks just north of our State capital, had the highest per capital school tax (2004 data).

Hamilton County has four school districts -- Indian Lake, Lake Pleasant, Long Lake, and Wells.

Indian Lake has a 2006-07 budget of $5,203,721. The district will receive $511,140 in aid from Albany. That's 9.8%, for those doing the math. [Cheer up, LIers. Some upstaters are getting more of a royal screwing than you are!]

Are some communities' school children worth more than others? Are the Thousand Islands more worthy than an Indian Lake? And what do the numbers look like in your hometown?

You really should take a long hard look at the school tax figures incorporated into the New York Matters report, High Taxes In New York: What Are The Options? [Page 15 of the pdf document.] The disparity in what New Yorkers pay in school taxes based solely upon where they live is as mind-numbing as the formulae used to determine how much State Aid each school district receives is mind-boggling. [As the drugs the guys who come up with these crazy formulae must be mind-altering!]

The reasons given for this disparity -- this bottomless pit of inequity -- are myriad. [In fact, if you call your State Legislator and ask him/her why your school district gets so little and you pay so much, invariably, the response will be, "myriad." Try it. You'll see!]

The solutions -- seemingly few and far between (and almost all relying far too heavily on that wistful, distant STAR) -- consisting largely of non-starters (i.e., scrapping current State Aid formulas and reinventing the wheel -- this time, in the round), or pork barrel liners (i.e., the "let them eat my dust as I hightail it back to the Capitol" rebate).

The talk -- from task force to public forum -- is plentiful. Action, scant. And no one bothering, in this legislative election year, no less, to ask their State Legislators, "WHY?", "HOW?", and, at long last, "WHEN?"

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