The Community Alliance: State Should Fully Fund Public Education
More fodder for the media, raw meat for the disloyal opposition, and yet another fearless, if but feeble stab to inoculate us from the plague that is upon all of our houses -- the school property tax.
Nassau County Exec Tom Suozzi, whose re-election is still up for grabs, and may be for weeks (if only they could count faster at the Board of Elections), has suggested, by way of Newsday Op-Ed piece, that Nassau County's 56 separate and distinct school districts be consolidated and operated by the County Executive.
Considering that district superintendents earn an average of $200,000 per year (we've low-balled that figure for purposes of illustration), that's some $10, 800,000 in potential annual savings right there, without even looking at salaries of assistant superintendents, administrative personnel, and myriad support staff.
A single, centralized school district, administratively, while maintaining the color and flavor of the local school districts.
Seems like a no brainer. Until...
Until one considers that the County has trouble operating passive parks, let alone active schools.
Until one understands the psyche of "local control," drummed into residents -- mostly by local elected officials who are intent on keeping taxpayers under the thumb of the special patronage districts -- who fear not only losing control over "their" schools, but worse yet, losing the identity of the local high school varsity team.
Until one realizes that, given the proclivity of our politicians to dilly dally, point fingers, say "no," and accomplish little to nothing, even the best laid plan (and we're not saying Suozzi has cornered the market) is likely to die in committee.
Until one accepts that Long Islanders are not much for revolutionary change. [Indeed, the majority of LIers, back in the day, opposed the very revolution that gave this great nation its independence. Even then, they said "no."]
Fact is, Tom Suozzi's plan for our schools, without even reaching the merits, has as much of a chance of gaining traction as an elected official has of missing a photo up. Zero to nil.
And that may well be unfortunate, the groundswell of opposition from school administrators aside.
We need to do something -- almost anything, at this point -- not only to stem the tide of burdensome school property taxes (now creeping up to nearly 70% of the property tax tab in Nassau County), but to reverse the trend of school budget increases and hikes in both the tax rate and tax levy.
Of course, all of this talk of consolidation, if not outright takeover, belies the issue at the very heart of the property tax crisis: How do we fund our schools?
Property taxes, with a smidgen of State aid -- ever-decreasing as it is? Or, that system of free public schools that the State, as mandated under New York's Constitution, is required to afford to every child?
We suggest the latter, with New York State funding local public schools to the tune of 100 cents on the tax dollar sent to Albany (rather than the paltry +-15 cents Long Island school districts see now). That, dear friends, would truly be demonstrative of our tax dollars at work. [And it would succeed in lowering our property tax bill by nearly 70%!]
Will it happen? Could it?
Well, with the Governor proposing even more cuts in aid to education -- on top of those previously imposed and now being suffered -- unlikely.
When the fiscal house does come to order, however (and it will, given time, and a conscious effort on the part of our State Legislators to stop hemorrhaging tax dollars), putting education first, by fully funding our public schools (mandates and all) should be -- must be -- priority one.
In the meantime, doing nothing is simply not an option. But place the fate of our schools -- and the taxes that pay for them -- in the hands of the County Executive?
Why not? At least, then, he could be held accountable for that which he actually has control over.
- - -
From the Op-Ed Page of Newsday:
OPINION: Let the Nassau executive run the schools
by THOMAS SUOZZI
What a crazy election! I am trying to understand what happened and learn from it. Why did it happen and what good can come of it?
Thinking about these questions over the past few days, I have concluded that something revolutionary has to take place on Long Island. It's this: Give the control of our schools to the county executive.
Yes, this is a radical idea. But there's a model in New York City, where Mayor Michael Bloomberg has full authority over the school system. Here, it would allow us to finally get some control over our school property taxes.
Let me explain how I get to here from the voting results.
Taxpayers are mad. And they should be. I share their anger. The property taxes in Nassau County are much too high. It's clear that my opponent's voters were angry - he did an effective job of promoting a bumper-sticker slogan, "Repeal the energy tax" - and they showed up on Tuesday. Too many of our voters stayed home.
But these results reflect more than just people being fed up with the energy tax - something is amiss in our system of governing. To my great frustration, I have served as a leader of the property tax revolt, yet this year I may end up being a victim of it.
Despite having run for governor on a platform of property tax reform and then chairing the New York State Commission on Property Tax Relief, after two terms in office - and literally thousands of hours dedicated to this fight - many believe that as an incumbent, I'm still part of the property tax problem.
How could this happen?
Here in Nassau, for some reason, voters do not distinguish between county property taxes, which make up 16 percent of the overall property tax bill - the county's portion of the tax bill went down from 23 percent when I took office to 16 percent because school taxes were increasing dramatically - and school taxes, which make up over 65 percent of the property taxes we pay, and are growing.
Despite the fact that I have absolutely no control whatsoever regarding school taxes, I believe many voters held me accountable for them.
When I was campaigning at Penn Station on election eve, many voters told me they were fed up with their school taxes. Those who weren't too late for a train - and would stop and listen - seemed appeased when I explained that the schools and county government are separate entities. But many didn't stop, tens of thousands never heard the explanation; many others simply didn't want to hear excuses. "You're the county executive! Solve it!"
Well, under the current system I cannot solve it, other than by leading a state commission to make recommendations, as I did, or entreating state or school officials to recognize that the school property tax system is unsustainable.
Why can't we get the voters and the media to focus attention on the schools, their spending, and the attendant school property taxes if they comprise the bulk of the problem?
I'll tell you why.
During the course of this campaign, nearly $5 million was spent by the candidates and political parties on both sides. TV commercials, radio commercials, literature, signage, door-to-door campaigns, get-out-the-vote efforts, and phone calls, all focused on a great debate regarding a relatively small fraction of the property tax bill.
There is no commensurate political discourse, debate or campaigning regarding school officials or Albany legislators, who mandate a great deal of school spending but don't fund it. Instead of holding school officials and Albany legislators accountable, the voters held the county executive politically accountable because there is no one person who is governmentally accountable for our high school taxes.
The reality is there are hundreds of school board officials in Nassau, alone, and their terms are staggered. And the historically low voter turnout in this recent election seems like a model for participatory democracy when compared with the inexcusable turnout of less than 10 percent for school board elections in May, when the people who will decide upwards of 65 percent of property tax bills are elected.
There's a disconnect in many voters' minds between what our state legislators do in our far-off state capital and the impact of their decisions on our local school property taxes. This is exacerbated by our tradition of "politicians should be hands off" when it comes to educating our children - that education should not be politicized.
I get it. This election requires some purposeful thinking and profound change.
Let's take a lesson from New York City and put the county executive in charge of the schools. After Mayor Bloomberg was given full mayoral control, quality improved. Here in Nassau, if the county executive is going to be held accountable for the high school taxes over which he or she has no control, why not give the county executive control?
The current system costs too much and it is completely inequitable. Tax rates fluctuate wildly from district to district. Quality in some school districts in Nassau is considered among the best in the country; others are among the worst in the state. County executive control, if passed by the New York State Legislature, would both reduce costs and improve educational quality. If the county executive does not deliver on those two measures, simply vote him or her out of office.
If I end up losing this race, it may send a message that dramatic action must be taken and other elected officials must sign on to the work I have done largely alone over the years to fight for property tax relief.
If I win the race, my goal will be to try to channel this voter anger in a movement to address the problem of school property taxes by seeking county executive control of our school districts.
Either way, the people want change - and they are right.