CALL ME A BROKEN RECORD, but there’s still more to say about school district mergers, or, more precisely, more to say about why some mergers look less likely than they did a few weeks ago.
Representatives from the Chatham and New Lebanon school districts who had been pondering a merger have now sidetracked that idea. They want to see what happens with their neighbor, the Ichabod Crane School District in Kinderhook, which has just reviewed a study on the feasibility of a merger with the Schodack District in southern Rensselaer County.
The consultants who conducted the study concluded that a merger probably means Ichabod Crane property owners would pay more in school taxes following a merger, and Schodack taxpayers would get a break. Although it’s reasonable to assume that a merger could produce long-term benefits for both students and taxpayers throughout a combined district, voters don’t live or vote in the long term. So it’s hard to image much enthusiasm among residents in Kinderhook and the other Columbia County communities within a merged district. And if the Ichabod Crane-Schodack merger plan stalls, Chatham and New Lebanon are less likely than ever to move ahead.
Amid all the talk of mergers, the districts have a more pressing issue that they cannot postpone: they must prepare annual budgets with the goal of adhering to the state’s 2% cap on property tax increases. But remaining within that limit may make it impossible for some districts to provide the type of public education residents have come to expect. Taxpayers want what politicians and educators have told us our children must learn in order to thrive in a globalized economy.
Consider Germantown, where the district superintendent has presented his board with a stark choice: make deep cuts in the budget, including a reduction in the number of teachers, and raise taxes by three times the cap set by the state, otherwise the district could end up insolvent. But raising the tax rate by more than the legal limit means that over 60% of voters in the May referendum have to approve a budget that costs them way above what the law normally permits. The Germantown superintendent seems to believe that voters might give the budget this type of a supermajority. Even if he’s right, it would be hard to call it a victory, when the end result is less service for more money.
Germantown isn’t alone in this dilemma. Several districts have already reached an impasse in labor negotiations, which should not surprise anyone. The force that drives up the cost of education always comes back to personnel, and usually to the contracts with teachers. They comprise the biggest part of school budgets because no one has come close to inventing a pill or an iPhone app that is anywhere near as effective at educating children as a qualified teacher. So maybe the key question isn’t how many ways individual districts can cut their budgets. Instead, maybe we should ask why, in the 21st century, do individual school districts around this state have the responsibility for paying teachers at all?
Teachers need to be paid and paid well. But leaving that up to individual bargaining units and school boards in communities of vastly different levels of wealth and resources seems like a throwback to the era of the one-room schoolhouse. The state sets the qualifications for teaching certificates. The state requires standardized tests. The state has established the broad terms of teacher evaluations. The state should pay teachers.
This is the ideal time to make the shift. Governor Cuomo has proved a tough and effective negotiator. But a statewide public school teachers union would gain clout if it could negotiate en masse for its members.
School administration should remain local responsibilities, with districts managed and otherwise paid for under the direction of locally elected boards. But imagine the relief property owners would see if the largest cost in public education were shifted off of property taxes and onto the more broadly and fairly distributed income tax.
Mergers and tax caps, which might have worked under different circumstances, now look like tools intended to sustain a distorted system of taxation. Despite the best of intentions, those who wield these tools will end up undermining the quality of education with false promises of relief. How can we expect better performance by public school students, when the only other choices left are shedding teachers and raising property taxes?