Field Notes: Vote Early, Vote Often

By 05/18/2011

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It’s school budget voting day in New York. And in my little district, with fewer than 2,000 K—12 students, voters are being asked to approve a $41,249,180 budget, which is a remarkably lean one, considering that it is just .77 more than last year’s budget (that’s less than one percent).

According to our state school board association (NYSSBA), that’s pretty good:

Reflecting the difficult economic times, the average school district spending increase [in the state] would fall for the seventh year in a row…. The average proposed spending increase of 1.3 percent for 2011-12 is lower than the 1.4 percent average this year, the 2.3 percent average in 2009-10, 5.3 percent in 2008-09, 6.1 percent in 2007-08, 6.3 percent in 2006-07, 6.6 percent in 2005-06, and 6.9 percent in 2004-05. The five-year average is 3.9 percent.

Much of the restraint, obviously, is due to the busted economy; in New York, state aid to districts was cut by $1.2 billion.  In our district, if the voters approve the budget, we will be axing 22 teachers, 11 percent of the teaching staff. (New York City thinks it has it bad: Bloomberg’s proposed teaching cuts – 6,100 –  represent only 8 percent of Gotham’s teaching force.)

What’s not so good – and if there is a “burning issue” in my district, this is it – is the proposed 9.8% local tax levy increase, more than double the increase on the ballot in surrounding districts and nearly three times what our state school board association says is the average proposed increase by the state’s 658 districts.

How we got to 9.8% is a sausage-making story for another day, but if there is ever a lose-lose, this is it: we’re cutting 10% of the staff and increasing the local tax levy 10%.  At the end of this post, I will make a prediction about today’s election outcome in my district.  Here are some of my considerations*:

1. It’s Not Our Fault With over 50% of our district’s revenue coming from the state, the state aid cutback did hurt – to the tune of over a million fewer dollars of revenue for us. (All of these numbers are very rounded, to protect the decimally-challenged.)  We also lost our federal ARRA (American Recovery and Reinvestment) money (another million plus gone).  If you add the “roll-up” expenses (the so-called fixed costs associated with items like contracts and pensions), you suddenly, have a budget “gap” of over $3 million. Not good; something has to give.  Being a victim is always good to get the wallets open.

2. The “Contingency” Confusion This is a doozy, but never much of a bother except in lean times.  We’re here.  New York State law says that a local district may impose a “contingency” budget – allowing an increase commensurate with the previous year’s Consumer Price Index (CPI) – without voter approval; rather, if the board of ed proposes a contingency budget (which we have) and the voters reject it, the board has the power to simply impose it.  Since last year’s CPI, according to our state officials, was 1.6 percent, our $41.2 million budget proposal was well within contingency limits.  What is rarely mentioned to voters, however, is that the board also has the option of going back to the drawing board and redoing the rejected budget — which it would present to the voters in a June election.  How many of our voters know this?

3. Closing the Gap: With a Sledgehammer With the contingency number in view, our administration did what school districts are programmed to do: they balance staff cuts and tax increases.  Using a “reserve fund” (already depleted by half the previous year), we closed the gap by $500,000; we then found another $300,000 in a capital reserve fund.  The gap was down to about $2.5 million.  So?  Split the difference: cut a million-plus from staff and have local taxpayers cough up another million-plus. Voila: a 9.8% tax levy increase. The alternative could have been cutting more staff.  I don’t think creative budgeting is considered an issue.

4. Where Are the Teachers? A couple of Sundays ago, leaving church, a district official pulled me aside and whispered, “You didn’t ask how many teachers live in the district.” No, I said. Fifty percent I guessed.  She smiled. “Try 13 percent.”  This meant, of course, that the teachers, who, through their union, had adamantly rejected any salary freeze – which would have saved an estimated $500,000 (see #5) — had no stake in this vote – not as taxpayers.  They lived in districts that were increasing tax levies by one and two percent (where teachers were taking wage freezes!) and were being paid by a district that was punishing its taxpayers.

5. Were There Other Options? You bet. The salary freeze, for instance. And busing? We could save nearly $500,000 by not busing students who lived within one mile of school.  Sports?  Untouched. In fact, my suggestion that each school (we only have four) and administrative department come up with its own recommendations for cuts was soundly rejected.  (See #3 above.) It’s hard to break old habits, even in these tough times. (Instead of Stretching the School Dollar, Fordham might consider a report on Dislodging the Budget Sledgehammer.)

6.  Turnout, Turnout, Turnout As previously reported, we know that off-cycle elections (which is today) all but guarantee a low turnout, which favors special interest groups, like teachers unions. (According to an interesting chart compiled by the National School Boards Association, many states hold off-cycle elections. And Rick Hess once estimated that more than half of all American school district elections are held separately from state and national elections (see here)).

Add all that up and you get  – an election tossup and many issues to ponder for the future.  Since so few teachers live in the district, their influence is somewhat muted. (New York also has an “improver advocacy” rule which forbids any school employee – or even the board of ed — from lobbying, or even advocating, for a budget proposition on school grounds or using school funds to do so. The law was routinely flouted until a taxpayer sued a few years ago. He lost, but the Commissioner of Education rebuked the district and so there are no more students and teachers standing in front polling places with VOTE YES placards.)

Even so, the pro-school lobby – parents, teachers, staff – is an active one and (per the turnout rule above) wields a great deal of influence in these off-cycle, low turnout affairs.  The question today, however, is whether the 9.8% tax levy hike has created its own interest group and whether it can mobilize its base.  It has been awfully quiet the last couple of weeks.

Cut to the chase. My prediction: total turnout 15 percent (1500 voters), 740 of whom will vote Yeah, and 760 Nay.  How’s that for close?   (There are three open board seats, but only three candidates, so there are no issues there.)

Polls close at 9pm.  I should be able to post results (called in from five polling stations and written, in chalk, on a big blackboard) by 11pm.**

–Peter Meyer


*I have promised my board colleagues to say, “I do not speak for my board here.”

**Results:  I’m not making this up.  The budget was soundly defeated, 1249 (NO) to 424 (YES), but the board of education, per its authority in #2 above, voted (4 to 3) to adopt the budget anyway.  I must admit: I was flabbergasted. The voters got it; the board decided not to take them up on the recommendation to go back to the drawing board.  My predictions were close on turnout (18% instead of 15%) and, though wrong on the actual vote, I guessed correctly that a rival special interest (angry taxpayers) would assert itself. Boy, did it.  But — and here we have the best argument possible for increased local autonomy instead of less — because of state law, hammered out in back rooms by powerful union interests, local voters were denied their electoral rights.  It is an argument for more local control, not less.  And I can’t explain the board’s silly decision tonight, to immediately invoke the contingency law, in the face of a 3 to 1 voter rejection of their proposal, except to quote Jay Greene, who’s advice to me, months ago, I printed out and taped to my computer screen:  “Even if, by some miracle, a dissenter can slip onto the board, there are tricks that the status quo uses to neutralize that person.”  I been neutralized!  The status quo is stupid.  And I am more convinced than ever that we need an informed — and educated! — citizenry if we are to save the Republic.

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