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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, May 4, 2006

Vote locally, but seek change state-wide

"Your every voter, as surely as your chief magistrate, exercises a public trust."

— Grover Cleveland’s inaugural address, March 4, 1885

Election Day is upon us. On May 16, voters will decide on school and library budgets and on candidates who will run the boards that govern those important institutions.

Over the last several weeks, our newspaper has devoted much effort and space to the upcoming elections — defining important issues, profiling candidates, and questioning them on a wide range of topics vital to our communities.

The rest is up to you.

We would not presume to tell you how to vote. But we would urge you to inform yourselves and to seize the hard-won right that defines democracy — cast a ballot.

Read through our profiles to see which candidates best reflect your views. Fewer than half of American voters cast their ballots in local school elections. That’s a shame. School districts are often the largest employers in our communities; their policies reach well beyond school walls. The quality and reputation of a school district affects the value of every property in town.

And the education of our community’s children — even for those of us without children in the schools — will have far-reaching effects on all of us.

In addition to voting for board members, local voters on May 16 will also be casting their ballots on budgets and bus propositions.

School budgets are far larger than municipal budgets in our area and they, of course, make up the lion’s share of our local property taxes. We’ve spent months detailing budget discussions and debates so that citizens will know what they’re voting for or against.

This year, all three of the school districts we cover have come up with spending plans that carry modest tax increases:

— Berne-Knox-Westerlo’s $18.5 million plan caries a 2.4-percent tax hike, largely because of an increased amount of state aid;

— Voorheesville’s $20 million proposal will bring a 3.29-percent increase in the tax levy; and

— Guilderland’s $79 million plan would keep the tax-rate hike at an estimated 4.2 percent.

Cash-strapped taxpayers may well say that modest increases on already burdensome amounts are no help
When Governor George Pataki first took office, he oversaw the institution of a system that was to allow some relief. The state now allows for just two public votes on a budget before a state cap is imposed on spending. This spring, Voorheesville and Guilderland both have budget proposals that are under the state-set contingency cap. So, voting down those plans would merely limit what funds are spent on, not significantly decrease the amount being spent.

Particularly in Voorheesville, where, earlier this year, the state comptroller accused former school administrators of inappropriately taking money, we’ve heard comments about "sending a message" through the budget vote. Such a message is meaningless; the school board is already aware of the problems and working to correct them.

Frustration in general about high taxes can lead to "no" votes at the polls as the school tax is the only one citizens can vote on. Several school board candidates in Guilderland told us of the anger and angst they’ve become aware of on the campaign trail.

We urge citizens to express that anger where it might do some good — towards their state legislators.

The Campaign for Fiscal Equity has won its suit, requiring New York City schools to receive more funds, but the governor has appealed, and the legislature continues to play a waiting game. While the parochial view is to keep upstate funds from being siphoned off downstate, we believe a larger view is the better one.

Every child in our state is entitled to an equal chance at a good education. We are all part of the same society.

Well over a decade ago, the State Board of Regents proposed a major reform of the system for distributing state aid. The Regents found that per-pupil spending in districts around the state in 1990-91 ranged from $5,200 to $30,000. The disparity is even greater now.

School district s in poor communities, the Regents found, spend far less per pupil than those in more affluent communities — classes tend to be larger, teachers less experienced, and educational technology less available.

That’s not fair.

For nearly 20 years, we have on this page urged implementing a state-wide income tax to fund education. Our system of property-based school taxes is archaic and should be replaced with a progressive state-wide income tax divided among districts on a per-pupil basis.

Currently, state aid to local school districts is determined by a complex system of formulas arrived at piecemeal in a political arena. And despite its broad use, the school property tax is widely seen as imposing unfair burdens on those who can least afford them.

Local property taxes take up a larger percentage of income for poor people than for wealthy people. and, for those with lower incomes, real property is likely to be the only source of wealth.

Aside from helping the elderly and others on low or fixed incomes continue to live in their homes, an income tax would allow subsistence-level farmers in our rural areas to continue their operations, maintaining open space for all.

Funding formulas should be decided not on the basis of political realities, but rather on the basis of educational needs.

A state-wide income tax should be levied to pay for all state-required educational needs at the elementary and secondary levels. It should be distributed to students on a per-student basis, evenly, across the state, with adjustments made regionally for varying costs of living. In areas where there are high concentrations of poverty, additional state funds should be shifted to those districts since there are increased educational costs there.

Of course, taxpayers in wealthy districts that wanted to offer their students more could always vote to levy increased local taxes upon themselves to provide the extras their students now receive.

State-wide requirements should be paid for by taxes levied state-wide. As it is now, locally-elected school boards in districts that aren’t wealthy have very little say on how locally-raised taxes are spent. Within the framework of already existing guidelines, school districts could still decide how monies will be spent.

It would be more productive to work to change the system than to vote down a school budget out of frustration over high taxes — particularly in districts where this year the contingency cap allows more taxing than the local budget proposal.

Only when each child is given the same financial backing, backing that will adequately meet all of his or her educational needs, will each student have the same chance to succeed.

Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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