Whatever happened to mandate relief?


New York state school districts are entering the second budget season under the state’s tax cap, which limits how much schools can increase property taxes each year. While it is a well-intentioned tool designed to control ballooning property taxes, its effects on education could be devastating, and its downside is already starting to show.

Long Island has some of the highest property taxes in the nation. No one questions that steps needed to be taken to rein in spending and force school districts — as well as towns and villages — to operate more efficiently so homeowners and businesses wouldn’t continue to be driven away by high taxes.

In recent years, New York residents have told their lawmakers that enough was enough. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, state senators and Assembly members listened, enacting the tax cap in 2011. Long Island residents, who typically are willing to pay more to maintain high-quality education and do, were searching for relief.

School districts have been learning to operate more efficiently for a few years now. With cuts in state aid, a downturn in the economy and the recognition of an overburdened tax base, most districts had begun to trim the fat even before the tax cap went into effect.

Some have closed underutilized schools. Raises in recently settled teachers’ contracts haven’t been as high as in the past, and some unions have even accepted pay freezes. Up until now, the majority of cuts, while not painless, haven’t crippled our schools. Test scores have remained strong. Long Island continues to churn out high-performing students.

But how long can this continue? In year two of the tax cap, many districts are proposing cuts that could really hurt students just to stay within the tax levy limit that allows a budget to be passed by a simply majority.

We urge our state legislators to take a hard look at the tax cap legislation, and ask one another whether it is really having the desired effect. We agree that property tax relief was necessary, but now this blunt instrument is being used at the expense of quality education. The tax cap, as is, will only continue to decimate Long Island schools.

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