We Don’t Need No Education

The Buffalo News’ editorial board just made a lot of students’ and families’ lives more difficult. In an ill-considered editorial, it assails school boards as whiners, and teachers as greedy pigs at a taxpayer trough. It demands that schools “overhaul” their funding model, but identifies no inherent structural problems, offers no suggestions, and places no responsibility whatsoever on the state for underfunding schools the imposition of unfunded mandates. 

It is a pack of tea party lies, wrapped up in a bow of taxpayer indignation and anti-teacher resentment. 

Suburban districts are in budget construction mode right now. As is true every year, kids’ educations are at stake. To characterize Sunday’s Buffalo News editorial as irresponsible would be an understatement.

It is beyond dispute that school districts in Western New York, and around the state, are struggling to comply with the tax cap. If they weren’t, there would be no need for it.

The tax cap is based on an exceedingly complicated formula that also takes into account a district’s “growth factor” and certain exclusions.

The basic tax cap this year is anticipated to be close to 0.12%, but your district’s may vary. Inflation was flat last year mostly because of the dramatic drop in fuel prices. That’s why the cost of living adjustment for Social Security recipients this year is non-existent.  

But there is a need. Property taxes, led by those supporting school districts, are smothering New Yorkers. The state’s combined tax burden is the nation’s highest. Something had to be done.

In the private sector, when conditions change, businesses respond or collapse. It happened during the Great Recession and, across many industries, has been happening under the influence of new technology (think online shopping). In each case, businesses have had to re-engineer their structures to adapt to change, or face the consequences of that failure.

It’s true that property taxes smother New Yorkers, and that school taxes take the biggest chunk. Does the Buffalo News, however, believe this to be the fault of teachers and school districts? No, this is the fault of Albany.

In other states – let’s say Massachusetts – state funding is more fair and more rational. A house in Newton, MA with the same value as mine pays fully half what I do in property taxes. Massachusetts Districts who want to spend more per pupil can raise a local share of property taxes to finance that, but the difference is that Boston does not dramatically underfund the Commonwealth’s schools, nor does it play cynical games with it. 

New York state government fails adequately to fund schools’ foundation aid and mandates, then passes the taxation buck on to localities. To add insult to injury, the Gap Elimination Adjustment has robbed school districts of even more promised, expected state funding in order to make up state budget deficits. This means that Albany has cynically, harmfully robbed school districts to make up for its own spendthriftiness, and left local school taxpayers to make up the difference. 

tl;dr: when Albany underfunds school districts, your school taxes go up. 

That was the only solution unless Albany’s desire was to see New York’s educational system to drop down to Mississippi or Alabama levels. 

School boards, like the teachers unions, aren’t much interested in adjusting to the influence of outside forces. Mainly, they whine. There may be reasons for that, but the reasons don’t add up to an acceptable response. School districts need to adapt to a changing landscape.

The problem – and one of the reasons for school district resistance – is that the changes in this case were political, and politics can change. Board members, administrators and teachers also know that, unlike a private business that fails to adapt, their school districts will not go out of business.

That gives them the freedom – or, more accurately, the temerity – to resist the changes imposed by the tax cap, rather than to begin the admittedly hard work of re-engineering education in New York.

This preceding passage is jaw-droppingly ignorant. Every year, school boards need to present their budget proposals in a referendum to local voters. No other taxing district has to undergo that level of public micromanagement and scrutiny. Your town board doesn’t subject its budget to plebiscite; ditto your state legislature or county. In a representative democracy, we rely on the good judgment of our elected officials to handle budget matters with input from the public, but absent a direct vote. 

School districts and members of boards of education are elected, and their budgets must withstand direct public scrutiny. No other level of government has as strong a need to respond to the will of the electorate. 

What “changes” are school boards resisting? What “re-engineering” do the Buffalo News’ editors demand? Should districts just blindly stop paying for stuff? What stuff, exactly? 

Another likely reason that school boards respond poorly is that while they are accountable for the successful management of budgets that reach into the hundreds of millions of dollars, they don’t always have the business skills for that complex work. To the extent that they don’t, they need to acquire those skills, perhaps by finding expert assistance. Albany, which created the tax cap, should help districts with that task.

Every school budget is put together with the assistance of the district’s business manager, who should be someone who is expert in handling issues surrounding school finances. Asserting that elected school board members are lacking “business skills” is just broadly ignorant. 

But the districts need to stop complaining and get busy. As the latest data from the U.S. Census showed last June, New York remains the national leader in education spending. At a cost of $19,818 per student, New York spends $1,643 more than second-place Alaska and more than other high-spending states, including New Jersey ($17,572), Connecticut ($16,631) and Massachusetts ($14,515).

The fact is that there is plenty of money sloshing around New York’s education complex. Former Buffalo School Superintendent James A. Williams repeatedly made the point that there were already enough dollars to educate the city’s students.

This editorial casually flips back and forth between the city’s funding model and that of towns. The city of Buffalo school district has an annual budget of $826 million, and city school budgets are not subject to plebiscite, like those of towns. City residents don’t pay a separately levied school tax, either. 

It also lays blame solely on school districts and teachers for a problem that is far more complex and nuanced. One reason why New Yorkers’ taxes are so high is that we have too many taxing districts. Again – that’s on Albany.

But furthermore, by casually using the statewide average for per pupil spending, you’re completely ignoring a very important point. The cost to run the New York City public schools is going to be naturally higher than elsewhere because of the cost of living in that area. How are you going to retain and hire teachers when the cost of living there is astronomical, compared to other places? How can you compare the cost to educate over a million kids in 1,700 New York City public schools with an annual budget of $25 billion? Connecticut, New Jersey, and Massachusetts have absolutely no comparison when it comes to educating kids in a massive, expensive metropolis of 9 million people. 

Not surprisingly, the cost per pupil is significantly higher in districts where educational support services are most needed. The cost in New York City and Rochester is over $20,000 per pupil. That’s a reaction to a specific need, not just casual overspending, and wild generalizations and false comparisons help no one. 

What is more, state funding for education has gone up every year, despite the cries about the Gap Elimination Adjustment, imposed as the Great Recession opened a hole in Albany’s revenues. According to the Cuomo administration, funding has risen every year for every school district in the state and is at an all-time high.

Yet districts wring their hands and demand even more money instead of undertaking the necessary work of reworking the education paradigm that, at least in New York, costs too much and delivers too little. Teachers unions join the chorus, even though teachers get annual raises through the step formula if not through their contracts.

It’s a con, aimed at pressuring Albany into opening the financial floodgates and pouring even more tax dollars into the schools. Managing the districts under the state tax cap is challenging, to be sure, but that’s what districts – and more importantly, taxpayers – have needed.

State funding has gone up every year but not by nearly enough, resulting in local taxpayers making up the shortfall. So, what “necessary work” does the Buffalo News propose to “rework the education paradigm”? Obviously, the News’ editorial writers believe that teachers are undeserving of their pay and benefits, but where is the “con”? It is seriously irresponsible to couch in the language of crime the idiotic way state government makes taxpayers fund school districts. Again: school districts only have the tools Albany makes available to them. This is an issue of state law, not local malfeasance. 

It has been exceedingly rare – and downright controversial – whenever a school district has tried to go over the tax cap since its inception. In 2013, Clarence (which spends around $15,000 per pupil) tried to make up a massive pension funding shortfall by going over the cap. That was a disaster borne on the shoulders of students and families, not to mention the dozens of teachers and staff who were fired. 

School districts are not empowered to fundamentally remake themselves into something new and different. The choice comes down to – do we serve the students and community as best we can, or do we pick one of them to screw? To “rework” the “paradigm”, look to Albany. 

The cap allows districts to increase growth in their tax levy by no more than 2 percent a year or by the rate of inflation, whichever is lower. This year, with inflation so low, districts are limited to an increase of just 0.12 percent.

The argument that government should be run like a business often falls short, lacking an understanding of the significant differences in their obligations. But it holds true in this case.

What’s businesslike about lumping in well-managed districts with poor? What’s businesslike about comparing New York’s statewide costs and needs with those of tiny New Jersey or Massachusetts? So, what is it that specifically necessitates that school districts act like business? 

As circumstances change, innovation must take hold. If it doesn’t, businesses may fail. Governments may lose the confidence of their constituents and important infrastructure may deteriorate.

In education, that infrastructure is in the classroom, but New Yorkers are paying too much for it. It’s incontestable, and it’s a fact that the tax cap is meant to address.

School boards need to begin doing that.

Nothing. The Buffalo News offers tons of criticisms and denunciations, but has absolutely zero ideas or suggestions as to how every district – town and city – can “rework” its “paradigm” – as if throwing management-speak at a problem might magically repair a fundamental structural problem. 

Some classrooms cost “too much”, but others don’t. But by offering a blanket accusation, even the well-run districts will now suffer from this lazy editorial. Hell, the editors don’t even pretend to identify the reasons why New York schools cost more than that of other states. (Some do, some don’t). 

The blame usually falls on teachers and their salaries. New York pays teachers the most, but the median is only slightly higher than that of Massachusetts, which the News’ editorial praises for its per pupil spending. 

By the way, the top five districts for highest median teacher pay in New York are all in Westchester and Nassau counties. So, the Buffalo News accuses Clarence and Buffalo and Amherst and Tonawanda for the sins of Scarsdale, Bronxville, Jericho, and Mineola. 

If the goal here was simply to identify a problem, the Buffalo News’ editorial board played fast and loose with the facts, issuing a blanket condemnation of school districts good and bad, cheap and expensive. It didn’t so much identify a problem as it accused districts of ignorance and indifference, despite the fact that no other governmental body submits its annual budget to the taxpayers in a referendum.

Direct voter action requires that school boards are especially responsive and sensitive to taxpayer demands; however, they must carefully balance that with the needs of the students, while implementing state mandates. 

By offering thin facts, empty arguments, and casual denunciations, the Buffalo News’ editorial board has just placed millions of kids’ educations at risk because, evidently, inflational pressures do not or cannot affect the running of schools. 

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