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Another chance

In the days leading up to the May 17 school budget votes in New York, taxpayers will hear a great deal from school officials about how they are working hard to hold down growth in spending and taxes. And these officials would be right-up to a point.
 
Across New York, excluding schools in the state’s five largest cities, the average proposed school district spending increase for 2011-12 is 1.3 percent, the new Property Tax Report Card from the state Education Department shows. That’s the seventh straight decline in the rate of spending growth.
 
Under the proposed school budgets, the average proposed property tax levy increase statewide is 3.4 percent. That’s slightly higher than last year’s average of 3.2 percent, but school officials are quick to note a salient fact: State aid to schools has been cut by $1.2 billion.
 
A simple growth rate, however, is only one benchmark. We’d suggest per-pupil spending and tax levy measurements are more relevant, because they bring into the equation another important fact: School enrollments have been declining.
 
On a per-pupil basis, spending growth rises to 1.9 percent. And the average per-pupil tax levy increase jumps to 4.1 percent.
 
In other words, the average proposed tax levy hike per pupil is more than double the projected inflation rate of 1.9 percent.
 
The New York State School Boards Association notes that nearly all districts are dipping into reserves to hold down property taxes. While that’s commendable, it also points up a structural problem: Most school district budgets are working off a base built up with years of sizable increases. From 2004-05 to 2008-09, average spending hikes ranged from 5.3 percent to nearly 7 percent.
 
Drawing on reserves can help in the short term. But once that capacity is gone, the options will narrow to even bigger tax levy increases or spending cuts.
 
That is, unless Albany in a year or two again opens wide the funding spigot. It seems as though some districts are counting on-or at least wishing for-that to happen. The state’s fiscal woes suggest that is a false hope.
 
On May 17, most New Yorkers will get their annual chance to send a signal about school taxes and spending. Every year, more than 90 percent pull the "yes" lever.

Is there any chance this year might be different?

5/5/11 (c) 2011 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or e-mail rbj@rbj.net.

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