Thursday, May 18, 2006

Punish Albany, not our children

“What if the budget gets voted down again, Mom?” That was the question on my 14-year-old daughter’s mind yesterday morning. I explained the potential consequences — the loss of sports and other extracurricular activities.

“Well that sucks,” observed her 13-year-old sister.

This time I didn’t chastise my daughter for using crude language. I simply agreed. It does. “Will that mean no choir? No Blue Masques?” they demanded in unison. I couldn’t say. Participating in the show choir has been one of the highlights of their middle school years. (The show choir even got to perform the national anthem to open the Ducks game last Friday night, which was way cool — for the choir and the rest of the Riverhead contingent huddled together against the drizzle in Citibank Park that evening.) And I can hardly describe their anticipation of the opportunity to get involved in the Blue Masques next year in high school.

My kids wore glum looks on their faces as they went off to school yesterday. I felt the same, maybe worse.

Every year, it’s the same drill. We fret and fight over school budgets, while our kids are stuck in the middle, suffering the consequences of political and economic situations they have zero control over. Every year, the kids are the hostages, the victims of mistakes committed by us grown-ups.

Shame on us! Shame on us for making kids pay the cost of our poor planning, our political agendas and our apathy. It’s astonishing that, even with the infusion of $1.3 million in state payments in lieu of taxes this year on state-owned land that’s otherwise off our tax rolls, keeping our school tax rate increase at just two percent, Riverhead still said no. But a two percent increase on taxes that already have a lot of people stretched to the limit is still, obviously, too much.

Our school property taxes are too high not because our school district spends too much. In fact, the per-pupil cost of education is about the same on Long Island as in districts upstate, when regional cost differences (such as the highest electric rates in the nation) are factored in.

School property tax bills upstate are drastically lower than our tax bills here because school districts upstate get a greater portion of their budgets covered by state aid than we do, so the amount they have to raise by way of property taxes is smaller. Here, property tax payers do the heavy lifting.

On Long Island, we spend an average of 5.1% of our gross household income to pay school property taxes. Other New Yorkers spend less than 2.3% of their gross household income on school property taxes. That’s more than double — 66%, in fact.

Let me put this another way: The income and sales taxes you pay to New York state are being spent by the state to underwrite public education in other parts of the state.

That’s mostly because more than 30 years ago, legislators decided on “regional shares” to divvy up the state aid pie. Long Island got 13%, and that’s where it’s remained, frozen at 13%. The island’s population has grown a bit in the last three decades, wouldn’t you say? But our piece of the pie hasn’t grown with it.

And because of the dysfunctional manner in which our state legislature does business, our local representatives have been impotent to do anything to correct this fundamental unfairness.

Senator LaValle talks about how he had the Enhanced STAR program put into place to give us relief here on Long Island. Do you feel relieved? Not enough to vote “yes.” This year, he came through with that PILOT money, and I give him credit for that. But these are Band-Aids treatments for a terminally ill patient.

I like Ken LaValle. He’s a decent guy who’s done a lot of good things for the 1st senate district. And because Albany is Albany, it’s probably true that no one else could have done anything different or better. But Senator LaValle, along with our as yet unproven new assemblyman, Marc Alessi, and every one of the incumbents in the Long Island delegation need to get the message loud and clear. You have to right this wrong now, or you’re outta here.

The way New York state funds public education is nuts. And very unfair — to the point of being unconstitutional. That’s not just my opinion but the opinion of the highest court in the state.

Our system is broken beyond repair, folks — it needs a complete overhaul. The only way that’s going to happen is if we — you and I — make it happen. Our legislature isn’t going to do it unless we pressure them to the extreme. We’ve got to quit punishing our kids and beating up on our teachers and school administrators and train our sights instead on the real source of our pain: Albany.

Can you think of a good reason why you should pay more than twice as much of your gross annual income for school property taxes than a family in Ulster County? I sure can’t. I don’t know about you, but that makes me mad. And the look on my kids’ faces yesterday makes me even madder. Enough with the hand-wringing and whining. It’s time for action.

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