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Discussion of tax cap education hits heats up

Jan 17, 2011 6:40 am
The potential effects of a proposed state property tax cap, mentioned by Andrew Cuomo throughout his campaign and in his recent State of the State speech, will be disastrous for New York education, school administrators and others in the education field are saying more vehemently, as reported in a Times Union piece this morning when schools are closed across the nation for the Martin Luther King holiday. The piece by staff writer Scott Waldman not only charts the numbers of teachers that would have to be cut to balance budgets in Capital District schools, but also trhe amounts of budget shortfalls already anticipated before any curb gets put on district revenues, including a possible merger between the Schodack and Ichabod Crane in Rensselaer and Columbia counties.

Without accompanying mandate relief, such as reduced pension contributions and a wage freeze, a cap could further devastate struggling school districts and force them to run out of money within the next two years, said Richard Timbs, executive director of the Statewide School Finance Consortium, an advocacy group for about a third of New York's 700 school districts. "This is the tipping point that is going to redefine public education in New York state," he said.

Waldman goes on quote the Statewide School Finance Consortium pointing out how the tax cap may be politically popular, but would do little to reform property taxes. To alleviate the burden on districts, the group is recommending that a cap be accompanied by a wage freeze for all public school employees and a limit on the amount districts spend on benefits. The group also recommends a repeal of the Triborough Amendment, which keeps existing union contracts in place during collective bargaining, and significantly weakens a district's power at the table. The cap would also mean an additional 5,000 layoffs statewide and loss of $200 million in salary, Timbs said.

Though some states spare homeowners by funding districts through income taxes, New York could achieve meaningful reform by imposing limits on government spending, said E.J. McMahon, a senior fellow with the Empire Center, a conservative think tank in Albany. He said Massachusetts once had a property tax burden on par with New York, but set a 2.5 percent property tax three decades ago to rein in spending and now posts some of the best academic results of all the states. He said the cap is an essential first step. "The tax cap has to be done first and foremost," he said. "It's the essential hammer that gets people to do mandate relief."

Schodack Superintendent Robert Horan said more school districts will consolidate in the next few years. He said district officials should consider such moves now, especially since Cuomo announced that he will establish a $250 million pot of funding to reward districts that find cost savings. He said getting the difficult choices out of the way now will allow districts to once again focus on how to keep offering programs for the students who show up every September.

"We have to stop talking about doom and gloom," he said. "We have to concentrate on providing great programs. We have to start thinking differently."

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