Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Tax Caps & the American Dream

Here's my piece from the IJ today. (Click on the link to see the responses :P)

Recently, Time magazine had a cover article on the death of the American Dream, concluding that we can no longer expect to move up in America unless we meet certain pre-existing criteria. At the same time, Gannett newspapers trumpet Gov. Andrew Cuomo's statement that the "property tax cap is working."

The property tax cap is working. It is working to maintain the divide between rich and poor and to ensure that children in poor upstate districts have no chance at all to improve their lot in life.

The comparative wealth ratio (CWR) uses average income and value of real estate to compare regions or districts. Across New York, the CWR averages 1.0. In my district of Dryden, it is 0.52 — a little more than half as wealthy as the average New York state school district. In Bridgehampton on Long Island, the CWR is 36.249.

Bridgehampton has a tax base of $6 billion and expressed its 2011 tax rate increase as "$111 on a $1 million home." Last May, the citizens of Bridgehampton approved an 8.6 percent tax levy increase by nearly 3 to 1, suggesting that it would be easy for them to surpass the 60 percent vote required to override the tax cap in 2012.

I'm picking on Bridgehampton because it serves fewer than 150 students with a budget greater than $10 million. Its tiny size makes it ripe for the governor's proposed consolidation of school districts with fewer than 1,000 students. (In our region, that's Newfield, Groton, Candor and South Seneca.) The Regents agree with the governor. So does the commissioner. Small districts cannot survive financially, nor can they compete with larger districts in terms of offerings and chances for their students. They must merge or die.

But do you really think that Bridgehampton will have to merge with another district? Why would it? It is not going to be bankrupt in three to five years, as the best predictions indicate our small upstate districts will be.

Dryden educates 12 times as many students as Bridgehampton with just three times the money. But Dryden has had budgets fail with a 50-50 vote. Do you really think that Dryden will dare to ask voters to override the tax cap? Remember, rollover budgets put everyone over the cap. To stay within the cap means to lose services, not just to maintain what we have.

In Newfield, 2 percent of the levy equals about $94,000 — a little less than two entry-level staff salaries with benefits, or perhaps one nice new school bus. Do you really think that Newfield can stay within the tax cap without cutting personnel and programs — again?

Since 2001, districts have been asked to do more with less. Eventually, of course, that evolves into doing less with less. That's where upstate rural schools find themselves today.

The last time I wrote here about inequity in education, people actually commented that rich people deserved better schools. Yet in the United States, our public schools have always been a pathway to the American Dream — a means of leveling the playing field and giving all children a chance at a better life.

Your state and federal taxes help students in Bridgehampton, as their parents' state and federal taxes help our students here. Where it all falls apart is at the local level. Funding schools with property taxes keeps rich kids rich and poor kids poor. The tax cap is just the final nail in the coffin of upstate children's American Dream.

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