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School boards say zero growth tax cap could squeeze budgets

Melinda Shelton

Schools across the state are bracing for a potential zero percent growth in their tax levy next year. While the latest provisions of an ongoing tax cap won’t take effect until the 2016 school year, the state schools boards association says schools are starting to worry now.

According to projections from the state c, the rate of inflation will rise by less than a percentage point over the next year. The state’s tax cap limits increases in property taxes to 2% or the rise in inflation, whichever is lower.

By the time the rates are set for school districts, the growth rate for taxes in the 2016 school year could be zero.

While taxpayers may be happy, Dave Albert, with the New York State School Boards Association, says it’s going to be a squeeze for schools. They have to pay fuel and personnel costs like salary and health care, that often grow much faster than the overall household rate of inflation.

“It could make budgeting difficult for schools,” Albert said. “As they find they have to make do with the same amount of tax revenue, yet they have higher expenses.”

Albert says while the potential zero percent tax growth effects the 2016 school year, schools need to start figuring out their budgets by late fall, and hold a vote in the spring. He says state school aid increased substantially in the current state budget, and  many schools added programs like pre-kindergarten for the first time in years.

He says schools will be pushing to keep state aid levels the same or even increase them next year.

State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli agrees that it will be a “tighter budget climate."

“There are other costs that continue to go up that they certainly don’t control,” DiNapoli said. “I do have some sympathy for local officials, who are grappling with a lot.”

The tax cap for schools can be overridden by 60% or more of the school budget voters. So far, that has rarely occurred.

The tax cap limits comes at a time when schools are facing other pressures, including concerns about increasing regulation by the federal government. The No Child Left Behind program under former President George W. Bush, and the Race to the Top grants under President Barack Obama have required schools to adopt more testing, including  math and English exams each year for grades 3-8.

Albert says a survey of school board members finds 80 poercent say it’s gone too far. Albert says the negative response stems from the botched roll out of the Common Core learning standards in New York, as well as the constant revisions of teacher performance review standards.

“There’s a bit of a backlash,” Albert said.

Congress is considering bills that would give states and local governments more autonomy.

Under a plan pushed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, schools have to adopt the latest versions of teacher evaluations by this November, or face losing some aid. The state’s education department has said it will grant waivers to schools who can’t meet the deadline. Albert says school administrators and their teachers union are required first, though to make a “good faith” effort to reach an agreement by the deadline.

“It’s not necessarily enough to just make a phone call to try to arrange a meeting,” said Albert. “You have to really sit down and try to come to a meeting of the minds, so to speak.”

He says the schools boards association will have a better idea of how many schools can actually meet the latest teacher evaluation deadline, by the end of the summer.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.