Unfortunately, no matter how frugal a district is, it can not, on its own, stem the rising costs of pension obligations, health care and other benefits to which the state’s public employment system has committed it. These costs, which are rising at multiples of 2 percent, make the tax cap the wrong solution to a difficult problem.
Rather than address these stubborn structural issues directly in an intelligent — and potentially unpopular — way, Albany has, in effect, said, “We agree that taxes are too high and costs you don’t control are skyrocketing, but we can’t agree on how to fix the problem, so, school districts, you figure it out. Just don’t raise taxes more than 2 percent per year.”
While the fat was trimmed in year one, schools are now stripping away core elements. “We’ve cut our budget to the bone,” said West Hempstead Schools Superintendent John Hogan. “With the tax cap pushing against us, we’re cutting to the marrow.”
We do not believe this is what our legislators envisioned, and now that a pool of data exists, it is easy to see how the law overreaches.
Baldwin closed two schools and cut 26 teaching positions this year, warnings of possible termination were sent out to 99 teachers earlier this month, and the middle school day will be reduced by one period next year. The district is facing a $6 million gap in 2013-14 — if 60 percent of voters support a 7 percent tax hike.
West Hempstead has already cut 100 staff positions and a number of programs. This year, the district plans to cut ninth period from the middle and high schools, and to excise 15 additional positions. In the Sewanhaka district, nearly 50 job cuts have been proposed to make up a $3 million shortfall. Valley Stream will eliminate 15 teachers, several sports teams and numerous after-school clubs. In all, some 3,000 teaching positions have been eliminated Island-wide since the cap was enacted.
Some districts, like Rockville Centre, are managing to hold the line. Others will stave off frightening reductions by dipping into reserves or putting off projects. But is this our ideal? Do we really want a system that disproportionately favors high-income districts, and in which our best-performing districts merely manage not to get worse every year?