The writers are, respectively, the president of the Bedford Central Board of Education and the superintendent of the Bedford Central School District.
Have you ever heard the story of the guy on his hands and knees scouring the ground under the street lamp? He tells a stranger that he's looking for his keys. "Where did you lose them?" "Across the street," he tells the stranger. "Then why are you looking here?" "Because the light's better."
And, so it is with Albany and tax caps. The keys to reducing taxes and controlling spending are complex. Just because the light is better in our local communities does not mean that is where Albany must look for solutions. The real, tough answers are in the dark where the Governor and the legislators apparently fear to go.
In our school districts, the problems are historically inflated budgets, skyrocketing pension contributions, staggering health insurance costs, and, yes, annual growth of salaries and benefits that need to be slowed down. We are all to blame and we are all the solution. Superintendents, boards of education, unions, elected officials, and citizens have all at one time or another been asleep at the wheel, expanded programs and staffing when the economy was strong, promoted good ideas without financial forecasting, or been complacent.
In the last three years, however, those in local school districts have already initiated necessary changes. Many superintendents have taken salary freezes. Boards of education have held the line on tax levy increases (below 2% in our district three years in a row). Unions have made some concessions. Citizens are showing up at community engagement meetings and, most importantly, they are voting, at least on school budgets! (Isn't an informed voting local school district citizenry the best tax cap of all?)
Is it enough? No. Incremental movement to lower taxes and reduce spending does not produce large scale change, especially change for which there are varying positions and interests. In our local school districts, though, the ship is turning as a direct result of necessarily outspoken citizens, leadership, and collaboration among those with opposing positions. We strive to attain the highest of expectations for every student with prudent, affordable budgets; however, we cannot accomplish this alone.
Local communities do not need an isolated, one-size-fits-all edict on tax caps. We need systemic action from Albany to complement the trend we started in slowing down spending. A tax cap isn't the answer. It's the stuff in the dark Albany must address: critically needed pension relief, rising health insurance costs, unfunded and underfunded mandate relief, and inequitable property assessments.
Teachers, administrators, and district staff know it is time for change. Boards of Education have stepped up. In our school district, we asked, our citizens spoke loudly, and we responded. Why take their voice and their vote away now? Why impose a tax cap which will cut deeper into the quality of education, in turn, reducing property values? And, why force local districts to make more cuts to programs like full day kindergarten, science research, the arts, and those which level the playing field for all children, only to leverage political change in future legislative sessions?
With all due respect, we put the bright light on our economic challenges and we are addressing that which is within our control. We need Albany's help addressing that which is in their control and is currently still in the dark.
Local school districts are reducing taxes, implementing efficiencies, using reserves, and controlling spending; however, these must be complemented with state action on pension relief, unfunded mandates relief, and equalization rate formulae changes simultaneously. The light may be better in local school districts Governor Cuomo, but we need you to look for your keys to economic change in Albany.