Column: Tax levy cap: A cap on education?

laura-SlackAs I reflect on the years I have volunteered for the Rye City School District, the last few years in public education have changed dramatically.

Local school districts are required to comply with so many more state mandates while the state pushes costs down to the local level, which affects the public financing of schools in both cases.

One of the greatest challenges our school district continues to face is the tax cap imposed by New York State without any corresponding relief from excessive, unfunded state mandates. The tax cap has radically changed the landscape of public education in New York.

In spite of this imbalance of financial support for state required programs, so far our district has met the challenge “to do more with less,” producing tax-cap compliant budgets while maintaining the top quality education Rye families expect and value.

Recently, Rye High School was named the 11th best high school in New York by U.S. News & World Report. The Report rankings rated more than 19,000 high schools and looked at both the number of Advanced Placement exams taken and how children performed on them. Among open enrollment schools—those that do not require admission—Rye was ranked No. 2 in the state and No. 4 in the country.

Rye’s academic standing and history of student success will continue to be challenged by a tax cap without mandate relief.

In 2011, New York enacted a cap on property taxes of 2 percent or the rate of inflation, whichever is less. By doing this, the state eroded the community’s local control over the financing of our school district. The tax cap formula does not account for enrollment growth, skyrocketing pension costs or any costs associated with unfunded mandates of implementing Common Core, testing and the teacher evaluation system, APPR.

Since 2004, the Rye City School District’s enrollment has dramatically increased by 518 students, or 18 percent, to a total of 3,315 students. For many school districts across the state, where the enrollment has decreased, it is much easier to live within a tax cap because those districts simply need fewer teachers to teach fewer students.

Pension costs of the Teacher Retirement System and the Employee Retirement System have surged in the last five years. In the 2009-2010 school year, the district paid an amount equal to 6.19 percent of every teacher’s salary, or $2.18 million, to the state for retirement benefits. In the 2014-2015 school year, the district will have to pay 17.53 percent—$5.8 million.

This dramatic increase in just six years is one of the major drivers in the crisis of the financing of public schools in New York State.

The school district has to absorb these costs within a tax cap, as it is not exempt.

While the tax cap does allow for an exemption for any increase above 2 percentage points in any year, this is meaningless relief. For example, this year the rate goes from 16.25 percent to 17.53 percent of salary, but since it is an increase of 1.28 percentage points, none of these costs are exempt.

The unfunded mandates of Common Core, state testing and APPR are additional state-mandated financial drains on the school district’s operating budget. The state has indicated all state tests will be given on computers in the coming years. Rye, like most other school districts in the state, does not currently have the infrastructure to be able to do that. Compliance will be expensive. It is estimated that between 2012 and 2015, compliance with these mandates will have cost Rye more than $2 million.

Another limitation to public school financing is the decrease in state aid. The state has withheld education aid from all districts since 2010 in order to address its own revenue shortfall. Despite now having a surplus, the state still owes Rye $1.9 million.

What all of this means is Rye must educate more students, absorb escalating pension costs and comply with expensive unfunded state mandates, all with less state aid and an allowable tax levy increase this year of only 1.64 percent.

In Rye, we have exercised heightened fiscal discipline since the financial crisis of 2008, long before the tax cap was put in place. There are no more cuts to be made without compromising the educational program. The school district has made judicious use of reserves, found efficiencies in scheduling and staffing, and has cut 61.9 full time positions, even in the face of increasing enrollment. The school district has already implemented consolidation efforts and cooperative bidding to lower costs.

It is time for state government to lead rather than push the problems down to local communities. In order for a tax cap to work without destroying public education, there must be real and effective mandate relief—not conversations and commissions. The state, which controls the pension costs, must shoulder the responsibility for those pension costs by either managing state pensions more effectively or funding pension costs at the state level.

Rye’s remarkable and successful school district is a primary reason many of us chose Rye as the community to raise our families. The district flourishes due to the hard work and talent of all its stakeholders: the children of Rye and their parents, our dedicated faculty, staff and administrators, and the citizens of Rye who support our schools whether or not they currently have children attending one of them. We must keep pressure on all of our elected officials in Albany to provide real and effective mandate relief if we want to preserve quality education in Rye.

The School Zone is a new
monthly column featuring insights from Board of Education
President Laura Slack