News Coverage on Property Tax Reform

Ithaca Journal

Exceeding tax cap proves difficult for New York public schools

Joseph Spector
Wednesday, May 16, 2012


ALBANY -- School districts that stayed within the property-tax cap had little trouble winning support from voters on Tuesday. Those that strayed had difficulty.

A resounding 96 percent of school budgets were approved Tuesday in the first year of the state's property-tax cap, school groups said. Only 24 budgets were rejected -- and 19 of those were in districts that sought to override the property-tax cap.

"What we learned is if you stay below the limit that was calculated for you by the state, you're likely going to pass," said Timothy Kremer,executive director of the state School Boards Association.

Ninety-two percent of schools' proposed budgets stayed within their prescribed tax cap amount. The statewide tax increase averaged 2.2 percent.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Wednesday praised the results, saying the cap is working. In January, nearly 80 percent of local governments stayed under the cap.

"It brought fiscal discipline to the discussion on these budgets," Cuomo said Wednesday in Syracuse.

About 50 districts sought to exceed the tax-cap limit, and that meant getting 60 percent of voters -- a so-called supermajority -- to pass their budgets.

It proved to be a difficult exercise. Some of the failed budgets were approved by more than 50 percent of voters, yet didn't reach the 60 percent threshold.

Some superintendents Wednesday criticized the 60 percent threshold, saying it is undemocratic.

"I am personally and professionally still struggling with the fact that I'm living in a state where a no vote counts more than a yes vote," said Deborah Haab, superintendent in Highland, Ulster County, where the override failed, but was approved by 51 percent of voters.

"I don't understand how that is constitutional or democratic," she said.

In New Paltz, the budget was approved by 59 percent of voters. If eight voters had voted yes instead of no, the budget would have passed, said superintendent Maria Rice.

Cuomo and lawmakers sought the 60 percent override measure as a deterrent to schools proposing significant tax increases in a state with among the highest taxes in the nation.

The schools that sought an override and failed are now left to decide whether to again seek an override or to lower their budgets to fall in line with their tax cap amount.

The decision is critical. Under the tax cap, if a district's budget fails twice, it cannot raise taxes at all in the coming school year, which starts July 1.

The next budget vote is June 19.

New Paltz's budget was proposed with a 4.4 percent tax levy increase. Rice said the district would now likely seek a budget at its cap limit of 3.4 percent -- a move that would need only a simple majority to win voter approval.

"As a superintendent, I can't in good conscience recommend that we would go above the 3.4 percent tax-levy limit," Rice said. "The stakes are way too high."

The Elmira City School District had its override rejected Tuesday when the budget was approved by 55 percent of voters. The district was seeking a 5 percent tax-levy increase to stave off additional cuts in staff and services. It was already proposing to cut 111 staff positions.

Its cap limit was 2.6 percent, said Superintendent Joseph Hochreiter.

"Legislators passed a law that allows the minority to control the majority," Hochreiter said Wednesday. "Fifty-five percent of our public supports what we are trying to do, yet 45 percent of the public wins."

New York State United Teachers President Richard Iannuzzi said voters in most districts recognized that school districts made cuts in staff and programs to contain costs and taxes. But the union said it would look at potential inequities from the tax cap and consider legal action if richer districts are proving to be more able to override the cap compared to poorer districts.

A report last week found that 58 percent of school districts plan to together eliminate 4,263 positions in the 2012-13 school year.

Iannuzzi said the results overall were heartening.

"New Yorkers see their public schools are doing a terrific job, producing excellent results amid budgetary challenges resulting from the undemocratic tax cap and from the state's failure to invest in public schools," he said in a statement.




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