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Lower tax increases contributed to higher passage rate for school budgets

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A near record number of school budgets were approved around the state in Tuesday’s vote. Many are attributing the relative lack of controversy to the three year old property tax cap that limits tax levy increases, as well as an increase in state aid.

99.7 percent of school budgets that stayed within the state’s property tax cap were approved in this week’s vote, according to the New York State School Board Association. The School Board’s Dave Albert says the tax cap, enacted by the governor and legislature three years ago, has played a role, but is not the only factor.

“We’ve actually seen in more recent years higher passage rates, and that trend preceded the cap, “ said Albert, who said the 2008 recession was a factor.  “There certainly seems to be a connection between low taxes and high passage rates.”

Only 18 of the state’s over 700 school districts proposed budgets that exceeded the 2% per year tax cap. Those spending plans, under the law, require that a supermajority of 60% or more of the voters approve the budget.  Just over half of the measures passed.  

EJ McMahon, is with the think tank The Empire Center, and a proponent of the tax cap.  He says the cap, plus penalties and restrictions for school districts who try to break the cap, has led to fewer controversies over school spending plans.

“They’re coming up with very low proposed tax increases,” McMahon said. “The votes reflect that.”

Despite the less contentious process, Albert says school boards don’t like the property tax cap.

“School board members are elected by their communities to make decisions about education programming and property taxes,” he said.

Albert says school boards believe that if state government lives up to its responsibilities to provide aid, the cap isn’t really needed. He says this year, with a $1.3 billion  dollar increase in state aid, schools were able to restore programs cut during the recession years, including music art, pre- kindergarten, and all day kindergarten.

“In many cases these were restorations of programs that had been lost during the recession,” Albert said.

The smaller number of controversial budget proposals in recent years has led to a further dip in voter turn out. Normally just 10 to 15% of all registered voters cast a ballot on school budgets, board members predict that number will be 20% lower this year, when the final tallies are calculated.

Now that school budgets are mostly resolved, school boards, as well as teachers and state lawmakers, are pushing to over turn a provision in the state’s budget that requires new teacher evaluations to be in place by the fall.

Albert says it’s “unworkable.”

“We don’t want to repeat the sins of the past as we did a few years ago when we rushed to negotiate agreements,” Albert said.

The State Assembly voted to extend the deadline for another year, until the fall of 2016, and to delink some school aid increases to completion of the new performance reviews. Assemblyman Ken Zebrowski,  a Democrat from Rockland County, voted yes in a near unanimous vote says it’s important to correct what many in the Assembly believe are mistakes in the less than two month old law.

“The fight is not over,” said Zebrowski, who said  lawmakers are taking into consideration “concerns from parents and teachers.”

A pro charter school group, Students First, accused Assembly Democrats of “flip flopping”, as many voted for the tighter deadlines in the final days of budget negotiations.

The new State Senate leader has said he also wants to make changes to the latest teacher evaluation program, but has not yet signed on to a specific bill.