05/16/2010 06:15 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

D-Day for Public Schools in New York State

While all of New York waits with baited breath for Andrew Cuomo to formally announce his gubernatorial candidacy (now rumored to occur on May 25th) there is an election this week with profound implications for public education in New York State. On Tuesday, most public school districts in New York will hold school board elections and school budget votes (all except the large cities).

County town and village taxes have skyrocketed in the past year or two (for which there is no direct vote). School district budgets, however, are put up to a plebiscite every year. School boards in New York have endeavored to move heaven and earth to keep school expenditures to a minimum this year. In the midst of rampant teacher bashing and so many lamentations about the state of our public schools, most districts in the state are proposing budgets that are less than 2% higher than last year. And given the rate of increases embedded in contractual obligations and required pension contributions (all outside the control of school boards) that means deep cuts to get to those numbers. Moreover, many school districts in New York rely on state aid. Yet Governor Paterson has proposed to cut educational spending by over $1 billion. But school boards can only guess what the real numbers will be because the state legislature has failed to adopt a state budget and there's no resolution in sight. Aside from the uncertainty from Albany, school districts across the state have been decimated by the dramatic drop in property assessments -- thereby driving down the primary revenue source for school districts, the property tax. So while many school districts adopted budgets that are at or close to zero increases over last year, the property tax rate in most districts are slated to go up by an average of 3.3%.

Assuming all school budgets pass on Tuesday (highly unlikely) there will be, according to Tim Kremer, the Executive Director of the New York State School Boards Association, a least 14,000 teachers who will lose their jobs. Another 5,000 non-instructional school employees will also be axed. So in the best of circumstances at least 20,000 will lose their jobs this year. If school budgets are defeated at the polls, the ramifications will be drastic. Contingency budgets will be pegged at a zero percent increase over last year's budgets, with harsh restrictions as to how you get there. You could see the wholesale elimination of important educational and co-curricular programs - and layoffs could be double that of what Kremer estimated. What's the impact of this on the classroom? Much larger class sizes, elimination of athletics, arts, and foreign languages. And these cutbacks come at a time when the pundits and critics of our educational system continue to bash teachers, administrators, and public schools generally. Inflicting this budgetary damage will only make it worse.

Rye blogger and community activist Charmian Neary lays much of the blame at Albany's doorstep. In a letter to the Journal News, Neary states:

"It's important to talk about the sorry state of our state Legislature and how that affects schools across Westchester. The Legislature every year passes more and more laws -- which we are then mandated to include in our school budgets -- but they do not increase our state school aid accordingly. ...In Rye, where I live, the schools next year will see an increase in enrollment of 1.2 percent -- and a budget increase of 1.3 percent (or only one-tenth of a percent above enrollment). This is the lowest tax rate increase in almost two decades. The taxpayers need to hear that fact above all the noise. School taxes are the only taxes we as voters can vote against directly, so it is tempting to register our frustration at the polls during our school budget vote. Please remember before you vote, however, that the men and women with the real power to change the way schools are funded are on the ballot in the fall. Voting against your school budget does not send a message to Albany. They only listen when it's their office on the ballot and their career on the line. If you're angry about taxes let them have it -- but not by voting against your own kids."

On Tuesday the voters are not only voting on school budgets, they are also electing school board members. Lois Winkler and Lisa Davis, respectively the president and executive director of the Westchester Putnam School Boards Association, emphasize the importance of choosing school board members wisely: "Local school boards make the governance decisions that affect how our children are educated and how our tax dollars are spent. Boards of education will face ever more challenging issues in the years to come, and the districts with solid leadership teams will be best prepared to navigate through rough waters."

There are hundreds of solid citizens on the ballot Tuesday -- yet there are also some clinkers and some more destructive. In Buffalo, a school board candidate wants eliminate sports from the school day. The Buffalo News reported that board candidate Ford Beckwith wants to eliminate athletics:

"Do we want to continue to sink money into sports versus education?" asked Beckwith, a Navy veteran. "You should teach kids to read, write, do math and science. . . . Everything after that is a bunch of crap. How many kids will grow up to play football?"

And in Harrison, board candidate Naomi Oppmann has what she thinks is a brilliant idea about how to raise revenue for schools:

"Have a company pay to put their logo on a school roof that has a flat roof (so that the artwork would only be seen from the sky)-since we are in the flight path to many area airports it would make it more appealing to businesses."

I'll leave the last word on this to Winkler and Davis:

"Public education is at a crossroads. School districts must come to grips with shrinking resources, long-standing union contracts, and federal and state mandates, while being ever mindful of the needs of the local taxpayer and the student in the classroom. We need to elect board of education members who are able to maintain a clear and consistent focus on strategic goals and priorities. Now, more than ever, an effective school governance team is critical to the long-term success of every district. Board of education members have the power to lead a district to great success or to lead it astray. Choose wisely when you cast your vote on May 18. "