New Yorkers will head to the polls on Tuesday to vote on their school budgets, but if recent trends are an indication, there will be ever-fewer votes cast.
Last year, about 560,000 New Yorkers voted on their local school budgets.
That’s a 43 percent drop since 2010, according to a study by the New York State Association of School Business Officials.
And it’s roughly 10 percent of those who could vote.
School budgets aren’t inconsequential. In many upstate communities, the school property tax bill can be the largest single tax bill a family gets all year. For some, it can exceed 10 percent of their gross annual income. Voters also choose their school board candidates and in some cases, vote on local library budgets, building projects and bus purchases.
Some say the low turnout is a sign that people are happy with the 2 percent tax cap, which has restrained the steep increases that schools were trying for, at least before the 2011 cap and the 2008 recession.
Two decades ago, when taxes were going up at twice the current rate or higher in some locations, homeowners launched protests and created organizations to combat the increases.
That protest movement seems to have gone away with the cap.
“The ‘no’ vote people are not coming out,” said Michael Borges, executive director of the Business Officials group.
“There’s been a certain complacency inspired by the tax cap, that the tax cap is controlling it for us,” said E.J. McMahon, research director of the fiscally conservative Empire Center think tank.
“There isn’t something that is forcing people to come out in droves to vote against their budgets,” added Dave Albert, spokesman for the New York State School Boards Association.
Still, overall spending continues to rise steadily, if at a slower rate than before.
Many districts are raising taxes as high as they can, without triggering the need for a 60 percent override vote, which is also part of the tax cap.
Statewide, the average increase is 2.14 percent, according to the School Boards Association. While the cap is advertised at the inflation rate, or 2 percent, whichever is lower, there are exceptions.
Schools with debt service, pension cost increases and new construction in their communities, for instance, can drive that above 2 percent.
“New York’s school districts are receiving record-high levels of aid from Albany to educate fewer students, and our school taxes are still climbing,” said Tim Hoefer, executive director of the Empire Center.
Lawmakers and Gov. Andrew Cuomo in April approved a state budget with an additional $859 million in state aid. With the other grants and targeted aid that is available and this year’s increase is $914 million in new state spending for a total of $26.7 billion in the 2018-19 budget.
Local property tax levies are at least $35.7 billion, according to the Citizens Budget Commission, another spending watchdog group which looked at 2015-16 data to calculate that amount. With the the federal contribution, education school spending in New York exceeds $65 billion annually.
The increases are coming as student numbers are falling.
Enrollment outside of New York City and the other “Big 5” districts of Buffalo, Syracuse, Rochester, and Yonkers has dropped steadily over the years.
This year it is 1,475,094 down from 1,477,203 the year before, according to the CBC and state Education Department.
The 2 percent cap was pushed through by Cuomo and approved by the legislature in 2011. The law says school districts can increase their tax levies by 2 percent or the inflation rate, whichever is lower. Because inflation for this year’s vote is 2.13 percent, it’s 2 percent – with exceptions such as debt service which can increase the levy.
Voters can vote to override or surpass the cap if there is 60 percent approval. Such overrides have been relatively rare.
Looking ahead, observers like Borges say schools will likely work hard to stay within the cap. School costs such as contractual “step” or annual longevity raises for teachers, as well as rising employee health and pension costs pose ongoing fiscal challenges.
One wild card is the amount the state chips in. “Next year is not an election year,” noted Borges who added that “state finances are not necessarily getting any better.”
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"...the Empire Center is the think tank that spent months trying to pry Covid data out of Mr. Cuomo's government, which offered a series of unbelievable excuses for its refusal to disclose...five months after it (the Empire Center) sued, Team Cuomo finally started coughing up some of the records." -Wall Street Journal, February 19, 2021
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