TL;DR - This fiscal problem is much bigger than us and bigger than our district. Our state government is at fault. We need to organize.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Sachem School District’s financial woes lately. While investigating how the school district lost access to property tax money intended for it, I learned a lot. In fact, I learned that what amounts to a vaporization of over a million dollars is a mere drop in the bucket compared to what we’re facing and what we’ll continue to face in the future.
Along the way, I’ve also discovered that there isn’t a smoking gun here. Local fiscal irresponsibility isn’t the culprit, here. Almost every financial problem we have is directly attributable to New York State. Let’s review:
In 2011, the state implemented the tax cap, and it would have been difficult even at that point to spot the issues we would have living under it. It changed how our local governments collect taxes, it changed how our towns can fund public projects – it even changed how we vote on school district budgets.
How we vote is completely different now. Essentially, we have two chances to pass a budget that isn’t an austerity budget. And we have to decide whether or not we want to waste the first of those two chances trying to pass a cap-piercing budget with a 60% supermajority. Let that sink in for a minute: If we want to grow our education budget so that it can fund anything new, we need a supermajority of the community to do that. Passing a cap-piercing budget is exceptionally rare and requires an alignment of the community that just isn't present in many places. Sachem tried it in 2013 and failed. That year, seven districts tried to do it and only one succeeded. In 2014, three tried and they all failed. In 2015, two tried and both failed.
The dynamic of when you and I were kids has completely changed. We're not starting from a place where we think constructively about what we might be able to do next year, building on this year's successes. We're starting from a place of containing costs so that we can afford to fund what we funded last year. The state is forcing school districts to shrink, regardless of what's going on in each individual district.
Nobody wants to be in this position.
We’re in this position because of the combination of the tax cap law and the Gap Elimination Adjustment.
We’re missing a large component of the revenue side of our budget equation because of the Gap Elimination Adjustment. Late last decade, Governor Paterson decided balancing the state budget, then at a $12 billion+ deficit, could close its gap partially on the backs of the local school districts. This resulted in across-the-board cuts to state education aid that we’re entitled to. It was supposed to be temporary, but all signs point to living under it as 'the new normal.'
Whatever logic was used at that point to justify the method isn’t important right now. Just know that school districts have missed out on billions of dollars of state aid, and that money went toward closing the gap in spending by our representatives in Albany.
Not only do districts need to make huge cuts to accommodate the lack of state aid, but they also don’t have the power to shift any of that burden to taxpayers. Because of the new budget voting dynamic imposed by the tax cap legislation, it’s next to impossible to pass budgets that will accommodate mere year-to-year increases in the cost of living.
The tax cap does not allow us to pass a budget that increases expenditures more than the lesser of 2 percent or the rate of inflation. You can speculate about artificially low interest rates keeping inflation in check and whatnot, but the message from Albany, regardless, is the same – If you want to spend more than what you did last year, we’re going to make that exceptionally tough for you.
To a fiscal conservative, this sounds like a dream. But the reality is that national measures of inflation do a horrible job of measuring our local district’s need for funds from year to year. Especially when coupled with the shortfall in state aid across the board, this is a death sentence for education in New York. It says we’re all going to have to fund more with less.
Then we have the mandates. While Albany is holding us to minimal increases, and taking away a good deal of our funding, they’re also mandating more about what our local districts need to fund.
In effect, Albany is telling us what we need to do, that we need to do it with less money than is workable, and they’re doing both of those things while limiting our ability to fund it ourselves. They’re strangling us.
I know. It begs the question. “Why does every other district seem to be able to handle this while Sachem can’t?”
First, an anecdote. When I came into this district, I did so reluctantly. I came from a district further east that graduated no more than a few hundred students and where everybody knew everybody else. The idea of moving into Sachem frightened me, and I even resisted, thinking my kids would be forced to compete on a larger stage, and wondering how such a behemoth of a district could compete with smaller ones that offered more individual attention.
Since then, my fears have been diminished somewhat. One thing that went a long way toward making me think Sachem could be a good place for my kids was the notion that Sachem should be the model district for a fiscal conservative. It’s huge. It takes care of a huge swath of Long Islanders. Administration is about as consolidated as it can be. Surely, when Albany decides it wants to pick a fight with inefficient districts, Sachem will be pretty far down the list of targets, no?
No. The truth is that Sachem’s size is what’s causing it to be among the first handful of districts running into revenue problems in this perfect storm.
We should be the ones thriving in a fiscally conservative environment, but we’re not. And it’s through little fault of our own. That tells me something isn’t working in Albany. It also tells me that we’re the canary in the mine, and that the problems we’re having are going to be everyone else’s problems in fairly short order.
If you don’t believe me, do a Google search for "Gap Elimination" or for "New York Tax Cap law". Read all the newspaper articles that come up about districts elsewhere on the island, or from upstate. Clearly, the problem is on everyone’s radar, and there’s a common theme – nobody knows how to deal with financial problems that are orders of magnitude larger than what they’re able to save by eliminating their extracurriculars and their sports teams.
Yes, this is a statewide problem. Let’s stop kidding ourselves about that.
This is such a big deal, teacher unions in New York have filed suit. The challenges were largely unsuccessful, but I think it’s not up to the unions to fight our battles for us. This is our problem that we need to solve.
We can’t solve it through divisive politics. This isn’t a Republican or Democrat thing. It isn’t a sports vs. clubs thing. It isn’t a conservative vs. liberal thing. This is a power thing.
The truth is that Albany has taken away our power at the local level. To do something about it, we need to attack the tax cap and we need to attack the GAP elimination adjustment. We’ve lived under both for as long as we can stomach. They both need to go.
The only way we can do that in a dysfunctional Albany is to send a loud and clear message. Our state representatives that vote to extend the status quo should lose their jobs. Anybody promising change who doesn’t deliver should be swept out of office. And we need to support candidates who will support our view in Albany that the tax cap and GAP elimination adjustment need to go.
I’m willing to entertain all options that have us casting our votes in November as one voting bloc. That includes forming a PAC and getting funding, if needed.
We have plenty of natural allies. The teacher unions have already taken action, and would support us. Local politicians who see the tax cap as standing in the way of funding needed improvements should also support us. People who care about education should support us.
We need to get money, find candidates and ensure pledges from like-minded people that we will support only state politicians who will overturn the tax cap and force Albany to find alternative funding for balancing the state budget. It can’t happen on the backs of our kids.
I’d love to hear your ideas for organizing, in comments here and on Facebook.