Did the Riverhead school budget fail because voters don’t trust the school board or the administration? Some people, including the teachers union, are banging this drum. I think it’s both oversimplification and, quite frankly, spin.
We seem to get a pretty consistent “no” vote on Riverhead school budgets, in the 1,400 to 1,700 vote range, according to vote results for the past six years. The one exception during this period was the year 2004, when the proposed budget represented a 12.99% spending increase over the previous year; the budget failed with a whopping 2,255 “no” votes.
This year, there were 1,667 “no” votes. That’s right in line with the number of “no” votes in each election in the preceding five years.
The difference this year was the number of “yes” votes. This year, there were 1,576 “yes” votes. When the budget passes, we see around 2,000 “yes” votes.
This year’s vote had the lowest total voter turnout over the past six years. And the low turnout was among the “yes” voters.
So I don’t think the budget defeat represents a vote of no confidence for the school board or the district administration, the way some people spin it to serve their own agendas.
If there are any conclusions to be drawn looking at these numbers, it’s that the parents of school age children didn’t bother to turn out to vote (as they typically do) “yes” on the school budget this year. Maybe they were busy doing other things or maybe they figured with a 2% tax rate hike, the budget simply couldn’t fail.
I looked at the voting results from 2001 through this year — votes, proposed budget amounts, percentage increases and total voter turnout. One thing that hits you over the head when you look at these numbers is the cumulative spending increase over the past five years.
The district budget increased from $65.2 million in 2001 to $93.3 million in 2006, an average increase of about 8% per year. That’s almost $30 million, and that’s a heck of a lot of money. The question is: Why? What does that $30 million represent?
Another drum people are banging is that we have exorbitant administrative costs in our district. What percentage of that $30 million is attributable to increased administrative expenses?
And what percentage of that $30 million is attributable to increased expenses for salaries and benefits for teachers and staff? Public employee collective bargaining agreements have built-in cost of living increases and “step” adjustments. Teachers move up in steps and earn higher wages by earning credits toward advanced degrees. And then there’s health insurance. Health insurance costs have increased astronomically for all of us. Public sector employees, including teachers, have a better deal than most of the rest of us when it comes to health insurance coverage. Government employers pays a higher percentage of an employee’s health insurance premium than most private sector employers. The school district picks up 85% of the tab for active teachers and 50% of the premium for retired teachers, according to the district superintendent. The teachers union seeks to increase the percentage paid by the district for retired teachers’ health insurance. That’s the heart of the current contract dispute between the district and its teachers. But the private sector is trending in the opposite direction. Most companies have decreased or eliminated health benefits for retirees.
Another major hit for district taxpayers has been pension costs. Because the stock market tanked, investments held by the state pension fund have shriveled. Local governments, including the school district, have had to make huge, budget-busting contributions to the pension fund to make up the difference — hundreds of thousands of dollars. In the private sector, pensions are quickly becoming a thing of the past. Private sector workers today are lucky if their employers provide matching contributions to their 401k plans.
And then, of course, there are the various state and federal mandates that come with price tags both big and small, but without state and federal funding to pay for them. Not to mention the higher proportional costs of educating special needs and limited English proficiency students, both of which Riverhead has in significant numbers.
To paraphrase the late Senator Everett Dirkson: A million here, a million there, and pretty soon you’re talking about real money.
The bottom line is that the bottom line isn’t looking very good for many district residents. People genuinely want to provide a sound education for our community’s children, but they want assurances that costs are kept in check — and they want to see results. There may be 1,600 people who turn out to vote “no” every year no matter what. But the rest of us need to believe that every dollar being spent is being spent wisely and that the education our kids are getting is worth every penny of our hard-earned tax dollars. That will get the “yes” voters out to the polls.