Where’s the Tea Party When You Need It?



By 06/03/2011

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A friend emailed earlier in the week: “Breathtaking.” It was the first of many such emails and phone calls.

Each was referring to a Monday night vote by our local board of education (of which I am a member—though my gadfly tendencies often lead me to butt heads with other board members, and to get shut out of things like budget-making processes). The vote was to impose a budget that raises the local property tax levy by 9.8 percent (triple the New York state average). This wasn’t the first time the board had made this decision—we had originally voted on the tax increase back in April. Yet it was soundly rejected—by a 3 to 1 margin—at the polls on May 17. So back to the board it came, through a back-alley channel known as the “contingency budget law.” How we got to this point—and what has happened since—is a story worth telling.

First, some context. Mine is a tiny (2,000 student) district in upstate New York. It’s a poor community with average family income of just over $30,000, and an unemployment rate of about 9 percent. (Conjure up a Richard Russo novel and you’ll get the picture.) As such, it depends largely on aid from the state and federal governments. (Local sources account for much less than half of our district’s funds.)

So when the Empire State cut support to districts by $1.2 billion simultaneously as federal stimulus dollars were running out, it hurt. The state cut meant a loss of about a million dollars, the ARRA “funding cliff” another million. 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 on a $41 million budget. Not good. Something had to give.

To plug the hole, our board opted for a lose-lose proposition: Cut roughly 10 percent of the staff (i.e. twenty-two teachers) and increase the local tax levy by roughly 10 percent (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 across the state’s 658 districts).

Of course, there were other options. The teachers union had adamantly rejected a salary freeze—which would have saved an estimated $300,000. To them, a tax increase was much more palatable. Why? 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—and then I guessed, “fifty percent.” She smiled. “Try 13 percent.” So the vast majority had no qualms with sticking it to local property owners. In fact, many of these other teachers lived in districts that were increasing tax levies by just one and two percent (and where teachers were taking wage freezes!).

There were other possible cuts on the table, too, but all were rejected. Take busing. We could save nearly $500,000 by not busing students who lived within a mile-and-a-half of school. (Parents rejected that out of fear of students walking alone.) 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. It’s hard to break old habits, even in tough times.

So, on May 17, we (the board) took the budget to the voters. I expected it to be close, but instead it was a blowout. The tax increase was soundly defeated, 1,249 to 424, but then the contingency budget clause reared its ugly head. Before ink on the cast ballots was dry, the board of education voted (4 to 3) to adopt the budget anyway.

You see, New York State law says that a local district may impose a “contingency” budget—allowing an increase no higher than the previous year’s Consumer Price Index (CPI)—without voter approval. In other words, if the board proposes a contingency budget (which we did) and the voters reject it (which they did), the board nevertheless has the authority simply to impose it. Since last year’s CPI, according to our state officials, was 1.6 percent, our $41 million budget proposal was well within contingency limits.

Yes, I was flabbergasted. The voters got it. The board ignored them. 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—provided, of course, that one doesn’t transform that impulse into more local board control.

But that wasn’t the end of the fight. At our next board meeting, a week after the original May 17 vote, a crowd of 200-plus angry taxpayers packed the school cafeteria where we hold board meetings to take our superintendent and principals and teachers and the board of education to the proverbial woodshed. “This is a democracy!” emanated from irate mouths of taxpayers. The public tongue-lashing continued: “This is not the USSR!” was also used several times, though in this matter I’m sorry to say the resemblance is striking. And at some point in the haze of hoorahs and cheers as the board voted to rescind its decision to increase the tax levy, I felt a whoosh of air behind me and turned to see (no lie) M. de Tocqueville, notebook in hand, scurrying from the room. (At this riotous May 24 meeting, one board member changed his vote, swinging the board from 4 to 3 in favor of the tax levy to 4 to 3 opposed.)

But, alas, that was only Round Two. The fight ended abruptly in Round 3 this past Tuesday night with a TKO: Despite a flurry of long and hard—and well-attended—budget workshops over the past week, and hundreds of suggestions offered for how to cut expenses and increase revenue, to improve the rejected budget, the board, again by a vote of 4 to 3, reimposed that same rejected budget. Not a penny changed.

Breathtaking.

There are several lessons here.

1. Congress has nothing over local political skirmishes when it comes to sharp-elbowed tactics. And need it be repeated? The lower the stakes, the bloodier the conflict. The silver lining: Board meeting attendance spiked.

2. Anyone thinking about centralized control—federal or state—should volunteer for a local school board. Or shadow any of our students or teachers or voters for a day. The variety of possible interactions in this tiny place should give any distant policymaker pause. And should remind all that it should be voters who control the boards, not the other way around.
3. The unions have no place in schools. With 80 percent of our teachers living outside the district, they had zero stake in the property tax-levy question, which was bad enough. But bigger than that are the statutory protections they enjoy in the aptly named Empire State. Between the contingency law and the so-called “Triborough Amendment ” (which allows for automatic raises during a contract stalemate) teachers are all but guaranteed salary increases in perpetuity. (Sometimes, during board meetings, as I looked out at the audience of mostly teachers, they very much looked like an army of occupation.)

How we got from a state constitution requiring that the legislature “provide for the maintenance and support of a system of free common schools, wherein all the children of this state may be educated” to laws taking away the right of citizens to determine what they spend for that “free” education is a long and hard legal and policy road. I know that, here in the trenches, the events of the past couple of weeks have been enough to take your democratic breath away.

-Peter Meyer




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