Voters in New Yorks suburban, rural and smaller city school dis tricts approved 92 percent of proposed school budgets on Tuesday, according to preliminary results. This was above the 40-year average approval rate of 83 percent -- and it was in sharp contrast to last months results in similarly high-tax New Jersey, where voters rejected more than half the proposed school budgets.
At first glance, the outcome in New York might seem shocking. After all, the conventional wisdom in political circles -- consistently backed up by polls -- points to a wave of discontent among economically stressed voters.
But Tuesdays results are less surprising when viewed in historical context. Since the 1997 enactment of the multibillion-dollar state School Tax Reduction program, New York has seen a pattern of relatively high school-budget approval rates -- even in tough times.
Consider 2004, when the state economy was only sluggishly emerging from the recession, the 9/11 attacks and the Wall Street downturn at the start of the decade. School districts that year asked voters to approve hefty average tax hikes of 8 percent. Yet fully 85 percent of budgets managed to pass.
Most school officials shrewdly anticipated tougher sledding this year -- and their budgets reflected it. The average proposed rise in school spending was 1.4 percent and the average tax-levy hike was 3.2 percent -- both well below the norms for the past decade or so.
Plus, as usual, districts used every tax-funded promotional device at their disposal to urge a “yes” vote -- supported by a heavy barrage of advertising funded by the chief organizational beneficiary of school spending, the New York State United Teachers union.
New Jersey is New Yorks perennial rival for top spot in school-spending rankings, and its property taxes are similarly sky-high. But Garden State school-budget votes generally have been more negative. Since 2000-01, the approval rate in New York has averaged 90 percent; in New Jersey, even excluding this years blowout, just 72 percent.
In past decades, the Jersey approval rate has dipped as low as 44 percent (in 1976); New Yorks rate has never fallen lower than 66 percent (in 1978).
New Jersey schools were also less restrained than New Yorks this year: Last month, Jersey districts were seeking average tax levy increases of of 4.8 per-cent -- half again as high as the average in New York this week.
New Jersey is also in even worse shape, economically and fiscally, than New York. Prior to the April voting, Gov. Chris Christie urged Jersey residents to reject budgets if local teachers did not agree to wage freezes.
New Yorks Gov. Paterson, by contrast, has been unwilling to risk a confrontation with teacher unions over compensation. Nonetheless, Tuesdays results were something of a moral victory for him.
The school-spending plans approved this week reflected Patersons governors 5 percent cut in state aid -- the same cut many school officials implied they couldnt live with. Assembly Democrats want to restore half the cut, at a cost of $600 million -- one of the reasons for the current state budget impasse.
Now that most school budgets have passed anyway, why doesnt the Assembly just drop the issue? (One answer: New York City would still prefer to avoid the belt-tightening thats already on the drawing board in other school districts around the state.)
Then theres the longer term. The cost-cutting tactics used by school districts this year -- reducing staff through layoffs and attrition, and drawing down reserves -- cant be endlessly recycled. Those districts face years of stringent austerity, with teacher pay still rising faster than inflation and pension contributions poised to skyrocket.
Over the next several years, New York is likely to relive the early 90s, when a prolonged state fiscal crisis depressed school-aid growth. The resulting cycle of steep tax-hike proposals ultimately eroded New Yorks school-budget-approval rate to Jersey-like levels. In 1994, the year Mario Cuomo was ousted from the governors budget, only 69 percent of school budgets were approved.
Cuomos son, Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, chose New Yorks school-voting day to leak word of one of the first big proposals of his gubernatorial campaign: a 2 percent cap on property taxes. The leading candidates for the Republican gubernatorial nomination have also promised to cap property taxes.
In other words, notwithstanding this weeks school-budget victories, high taxes remain a huge issue for New Yorkers -- and politicians know it.
Original Source: http://www.nypost.com/p/news/opinion/opedcolumnists/reading_ny_school_budget_votes_AIYbKdU2t8BPhkBpUsIt6N