Voters in New York’s suburban, rural and smaller city school districts approved 92 percent of proposed school budgets yesterday, according to the New York State School Boards Association. This is above the historical average approval rate of 83 percent, and it is in stunning contrast to last month’s results in New Jersey, where more than half the proposed school budgets were rejected by voters.
Some initial observations on the New York outcome:
- By historical standards, school districts were especially restrained in their budget proposals this year. The average budget increase was 1.4 percent, and the average tax levy hike was 3.2 percent (they were slightly higher on a per-pupil basis). The median proposed tax levy increase for 657 districts was 2.9 percent. The tax hikes were higher than inflation, which is projected at 2.2 percent for the coming year, but taxpayers (those who bothered to vote, at any rate) in most districts were apparently swayed by the arguments of school officials who claimed they were trying really, really hard to keep a lid on taxes.
- Governor Paterson’s proposed state aid cuts were baked into the school district budget proposals. In other words, taxpayers are content to live with the consequences of Paterson’s budget.Meanwhile, one of the issues holding up the state budget is the Assembly majority’s insistence on restoring half the school aid cut, which would cost $700 million. Memo to Assembly Democrats: At this point, why bother? (The answer: New York City, where there is no separate school budget requiring voter approval, is balking at making the same sort of staff and program cuts approved in other districts.)
- Schools were able to hold down taxes and spending in two ways: by cutting many of the new staff slots they’ve added over the past decade (despite shrinking enrollment), and by drawing on their enormous cushion of reserves. Paterson took flack from school districts late last year when he began suggesting that reserves were available to tide over delays in school aid payments and cuts in new aid; it appears he was right.