HEY, ALL YOU TRUSTING CITIZENS. MEET NEW YORK’S LUNATIC CHUTES AND LADDERS
SYSTEM OF PAYING FOR PUBLIC EDUCATION.
A Buffalo News
Editorial by editorial writer Kevin Walter
April 1, 2001
the New York school budgeting process, see this
[In May], if you’ve got nothing better to do and you’re up for spending a chunk
of money and effort on a largely frivolous diversion, this is what you do: Get
in your car, drive to your favorite polling place and cast a vote on your local
school district budget. What it lacks in amusement it makes up in pointlessness.
That assumes, of course, that you don’t live in a district like
Cheektowaga-Sloan, where defeating school budgets is a kind of community sport
and where students today are paying the price for New York’s lunatic system of
funding public education. Then it’s not pointless, it’s punitive.
BEST OF MYSHORTPENCIL.COM
A LIST OF THIS WEEK’S COMMENTARIES
Stories on Budget Issues
your salary to any teacher’s
Mainly, though, New York’s system for public voting on school budgets can be
accurately described as nonsense on stilts — a dubious idea made all the more
unstable by its execution. Think about it: This is a process in which ballots
are cast by too few people, who are too little informed about a complex and
incomplete document — one that, by simple virtue of its existence, acts as a
lightning rod for public dissatisfaction. And usually without accomplishing a
thing. But still costing a lot of money. Who thought this up?
For people who have never lived anywhere but New York, voting on the school
budget may seem as normal as breathing, though with turnouts frequently under 10
percent of those eligible to vote, the analogy is strained. Better to call it
the idea of voting on school budgets. It’s been done that way here for
generations, and most New Yorkers see it as one of the basic rights of
It’s not. School budget voting is the exception to the rule in this country, and
a mutation of the democratic principles we traditionally hold dear. It makes a
bright, red target of New York’s schools — which is to say, its students — and
serves no purpose but to feed frustrated New Yorkers the illusion that they’re
actually influencing school spending. Or worse, on those rare occasions when
budget votes actually do have an impact, they penalize students for a savings
that can often be counted as pocket change. School budget votes are, in a word,
other states, elections are held on operating levies, where voters approve or
defeat a tax rate to fund public schools. Typically, the tax rate remains in
effect for 3 to 5 years before coming up for renewal. Voters are not asked
whether the budget is acceptable, but whether the tax rate is. This system of
voting of school funding works much better in controlling costs than NY’s annual
Fifteen Dollars a Year
This is a hard year in the Cheektowaga-Sloan school district, one of Erie
County’s smallest. Sports and other extracurricular activities were canceled
after voters twice defeated budgets of around $18.4 million. Even though the law
was reformed in 1997, allegedly protecting sports and other extracurriculars,
students here were sandbagged, anyway. Blame it on New York’s loony system of
funding schools. It could happen in your district, too.
* * *
After the two defeats, the Cheektowaga-Sloan school board adopted a contingency
budget of about $18 million, 2.5 percent lower than the first defeated budget.
The difference amounts to around $15 per taxpayer per year, says Superintendent
James P. Mazgajewski. That’s 29 cents a week.
the problem. Schools come back year after year after year demanding $15 more on
top the $15 added in the last election. Over time, it has created the most
expensive system of public education in the country. The only way voters can
pressure schools to do better at controlling costs is to reduce taxes by $15 at
a time! Over time, this can theoretically cause growth in education costs to
slow, but it often doesn’t. Before the pressure gets high enough to slow the
growth in educator compensation–the most significant factor in rising education
costs–schools cut sports and raise class sizes, which creates a community
uproar, and funding is generally restored. Voters can’t touch the main culprits
of spending increases, which is entirely by design. Educators love the idea that
it’s absurd to defeat school budgets because so little can be saved. But how
much can voting mean if the choice is between agreeing with the proposal or
being absurd? No wonder people don’t vote.
A System of Second Guesses
New York is one of only six states that require school districts to submit their
budgets to a public vote, according to the Education Commission of the States, a
Denver-based organization whose goal is to help state leaders develop education
policies. The other states, interestingly, are also in the Northeast:
Connecticut, Maine, New Hampshire, New Jersey and Vermont.
York, New Jersey and Connecticut lead the nation in spending on education. In
part, it’s because annual school budget votes are less effective at controlling
rising education costs than taking operating levies to the voters every five or
so years, as other states do.
* * *
[In]Pennsylvania * * * voters elect school boards, school boards adopt budgets
and kids go to school. No public votes, no community angst, no student programs
put at risk. If voters don’t like how their schools are run, they retain the
traditional, time-honored recourse of throwing the bums out and putting new ones
That’s the way it works for other taxing entities in New York. In Kenmore,
residents elect a village government, the government draws up a budget, allowing
for public comment, and that’s that. If voters disapprove, they know what to do.
The same thing happens in the Town of Amherst, the City of Buffalo and the
County of Erie.
The practice repeats itself at every level of government across the state and
including the state, whose functionaries, please take note, are happy to require
public votes on school budgets but who, strangely enough, prefer not to invite
similar oversight for their own spending. Anyone wonder why?
But the schools are different. For reasons no one has adequately explained,
schools in New York are denied the normal considerations of representative
democracy. "It’s the only case I know where a body elected at large has its
decisions second-guessed by the same people who elected them in the first
place," says Carl T. Hayden, the outspoken chancellor of the state Board of
annual school budget votes were bad for education funding, they’d be eliminated.
The fact is, they facilitate faster growth in spending than the systems used by
other states. That is why we continue to have annual school budget votes,
regardless of the reasons for them in the beginning.
That’s more than a matter of curiosity, because the deviation from democratic
standards puts schools directly in the line of fire. "Very often, budget
defeats are expressions of voter unhappiness with the state of the world,"
Hayden says. Don’t like your county taxes? Take it out on the school. Distressed
about the check you just sent off to Washington? Take it out on the school. Mad
at Albany? Take it out on the school.
reality is 90% or more of school budgets pass. Whatever the angst of voters, it
generally doesn’t produce defeated school budgets.
Voters, by the way, have good reason to be mad at Albany, whose hypocrisy is not
limited to mandating votes on school spending while exempting its own budget. It
takes on a more overtly destructive role, as well. Because the state cannot
bring itself to pass its own budget by the April 1 deadline, schools are left to
estimate how much money they will receive in state aid.
It’s a crucial gap, because the amount of state aid directly affects the local
tax rate, believed by many school officials to be the No. 1 issue in determining
the fate of a budget. Yet the state budget is usually not finished until after
school budget voting is over.
So what you have is this: Albany, which requires school budget votes, turns
around and sabotages them by denying districts information that is basic to
* * *
A Newer, Even More Useless Budget Vote
Some might argue that, whatever its flaws, the budget vote at least provides
voters some method for holding schools accountable. Sorry, but no.
For example, certain voters may come to the polls primed to send a message about
teacher salaries. "I think some people who do vote no say ‘We’ll show
them,’ " says Zizzi, the Cheektowaga-Sloan teacher and bowling coach. But
it doesn’t work that way. Teacher salaries are locked in by contract. The fact
is that, until the law was changed in 1997, public votes typically affected no
more than 4 to 5 percent of the total budget. Now they affect even less.
Under the old law, if a budget was defeated and if the defeat stuck — no sure
thing at a time when schools could repeatedly put budgets up for a vote — all
that could be deleted were items such as equipment, public use of schools,
transportation, sports and other extracurricular activities. Salaries, mandated
programs like special education and most other budget lines were off limits.
In other words, students paid the price because a majority of voting adults, who
may or may not have had children in the district, wanted to save what usually
amounted to pocket change.
is a self-serving interpretation. Perhaps voters are more interested in
motivating schools to better control rising costs than they are in saving a few
dollars. If a few dollars is all the rules of the game permit, then that’s all
the voters can save. However, the meager savings is no excuse for abandoning
ballot-box pressure to improve cost controls.
The state revised that law four years ago, easing pressure on popular programs
but rendering the budget vote more useless than ever. The new law — in theory,
at least — protects sports, field trips and other extracurricular activities,
including them in the "contingency budget" a school would have to
adopt in the face of defeat. The leaves only the purchase of equipment and
community use of schools as targets for voters’ ire, or about 1 to 3 percent of
a typical budget.
state is currently considering revising the law again to exempt health insurance
and pension contribution costs from the contingency cap. In effect, despite
having the right to vote on the entire budget, all voters really have a say on
is the difference in spending between the proposed budget and the contingency
And let’s be clear about this. The education lobby has worked relentlessly to
see to it that voters have no right to slow the growth of school spending by
voting "no" on school budgets. Contingency budgets permit all aspects
of spending to grow at their contractual or market rates of growth with the
exception of about 2% of spending, the growth of which is capped at 120% of the
rate of inflation or 4%, whichever is less. So, school boards can enter into
contracts with educators allowing for compensation increases well above the rate
of inflation and taxpayers must pay those increases because they are outside the
In effect, voters have two choices in school budget votes: 1. vote
"yes" to increase spending at the contingency budget level; 2. vote
"yes" to increase spending above the contingency budget level.
"No" votes are not permitted on school budgets.
Why does New York have the highest education costs in the country? Precisely
because the system is designed (rigged?) to produce this result.
Even then, a school whose budget was defeated might not be able to buy computers
for its students. Or projectors for its classrooms. Or sports equipment. Or even
desks and chairs, as occurred in Cheektowaga-Sloan. The revised law tinkered
with a broken system, but ultimately, left the apparatus in place. It still
holds students hostage to an irrational system.
right. The system holds students hostage because the laws do not permit or
require steps to be taken to reduce the growth of educator compensation. In
effect, the law prohibits this action. Which means students must suffer. That’s
precisely what educators want. It gives them the greatest amount of leverage to
push spending increases–including compensation–to higher levels at faster
And there is an asterisk. Under the 1997 law, a contingency budget is capped.
Its growth over the previous year’s budget is limited to one of two rates of
growth. The budget can be either 4 percent higher than the previous year’s plan,
or it can grow by 120 percent of the inflation rate, whichever is smaller.
Even though the new law was supposed to protect extra-curriculars, it did not
work out that way in Cheektowaga-Sloan. The contingency budget had to come in
under the cap, and the only way to do that was to cut programs, including sports
and clubs. Some were spared, and others were eliminated. Students unlucky enough
to belong to the abandoned sports and programs fell victim to the asterisk.
The Unavoidable Question
Budget votes afflict Western New York schools like lake-effect snow: They
regularly sock certain districts, while generally leaving others alone. But the
results are sufficiently unpredictable that all districts worry about them.
Cheektowaga-Sloan, for example, has won just four of its votes since 1990 and
has lost the last four in a row. Meanwhile, the Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda school
district has not lost a single budget vote since 1990, though two recent capital
spending proposals failed at the polls.
Further north, the Niagara Falls school district has won every vote since 1997,
when the state’s small-city districts were first cursed with the budget vote,
having previously been exempted. In the same period, the North Tonawanda
small-city district has lost three of the four votes.
But compare some numbers. Facing a public vote every year, Ken-Ton’s school
budget has grown 49 percent since 1990, rising from $69.3 million then to $103.3
million today. In Scranton, Pa., where there are no budget votes, the rate of
growth was virtually identical, rising from $52.1 million in 1990 to $78.5
million today, or 50 percent. Cheektowaga-Sloan’s budget, stoked by repair
programs and a growing population of special education students, grew a
substantial 77 percent. In the same period, for comparison’s sake, the federal
budget grew 42 percent, while the state budget rose by 55 percent.
annual school budget votes increases funding for education faster, on average,
than voting procedures used in other states.
The question is unavoidable: What difference does a budget vote make? It made no
difference between Ken-Ton’s rate of growth and Scranton’s. It didn’t prevent
Cheektowaga-Sloan’s from growing as fast as it did. So what’s the point?
The Empty Center
These votes, themselves, add to a district’s costs. A budget vote runs the
Ken-Ton school district about $30,000, says its superintendent, David Paciencia.
While some of those costs would be borne in a school board election, regardless,
most of the expense is directly related to the budget vote. As a percentage of
the total budget, $30,000 isn’t much, but it’s enough to pay the better part of
a new teacher’s salary, Paciencia says.
What’s more, that expense is incurred to benefit a relative handful of voters.
Paciencia, for example, was surprised to find that the thousands of residents
who typically turn out for a budget vote represent only a tiny fraction of
Ken-Ton’s eligible voters. Last May, 5,291 residents cast ballots on the budget,
but what seemed like a healthy turnout accounted for just 11 percent of the
district’s 46,680 potential voters.
So, who is voting? Information is sketchy, but an exit poll, utterly
unscientific, suggests some possibilities at Cheektowaga-Sloan. Some 421 voters
completed the poll last May, out of almost 1,500 people who voted in the
election. Of those who responded:
The most common age category was 60 or over.
More people identified themselves as retired than as parents.
62 percent said they had no children attending school in the district.
It’s unfair to conclude that all people over 60, or who are retired, or who have
no children in school automatically vote against school budgets, but where are
the rest of the parents and working people? Should state policy hold students
accountable for the refusal of some voters to take the trouble?
There is also a question of what voters are really voting on. Niagara Falls
Superintendent Carmen Granto attributes his district’s success to a single
factor: "We don’t raise taxes," he says. Cheektowaga-Sloan’s
Mazgajewski also says taxes drive the issue.
But voters who focus only on the bottom line may not be considering — indeed,
probably don’t even understand — the intricacies of budgets that total, in the
case of Niagara Falls, $105 million. "I work with them and I don’t
understand them," Granto says. "How can I expect voters to?"
Nevertheless, that has to be the standard. But what does the typical voter
really know about how the costs of special education influence a budget? Or what
impact health insurance has? One thing is sure, this year: They know about the
costs of natural gas. Granto says the district’s December heating bill topped
$200,000, more than double the cost from a year ago. Will voters, recognizing
that problem, cut the district some slack in next month’s voting, or will they
rebel, having been squeezed by the same forces themselves? Granto doesn’t know,
but he’s worried.
In Ken-Ton, Paciencia has a different concern. Falling property values could
trigger a noticeably larger tax increase before long, he says. Assessment
challenges are becoming more common in the state’s municipalities, including the
Town of Tonawanda, where the Huntley power generating station recently won a 25
percent cut in its assessment.
The reduction will be phased in over five years, but it’s going to be a big hit.
Huntley’s $9.5 million school tax bill accounts for 16 percent of Ken-Ton’s
local tax revenue. The loss of that money could fuel a budget defeat that
undermines Ken-Ton students the same as Cheektowaga-Sloan’s have been.
And for what? A difference of $15 a year, give or take? Most people don’t have
the time or patience — or even the inclination, for that matter — to really
dig into a budget. That’s why we elect surrogates — so they can develop
expertise and apply their best judgment. It’s called representative democracy,
and it works pretty well, certainly better than the chaotic system that has
gripped Cheektowaga-Sloan by the neck.
Why not give our schools a crack at it? Albany will have a perfect chance to do
just that as it responds to January’s court ruling that New York’s funding of
downstate schools is unconstitutionally low. Assuming the decision holds up on
appeal, Albany will be forced to rethink the entire system of school funding. It
would be a propitious time to drop this ridiculous law.
The remarkable thing is that so many budgets typically pass. Although more than
30 percent were defeated in the politically convulsive year of 1994, only 13
percent went down last year and only 7 percent the year before that. That record
could work against any serious effort to change the law, especially since so
many New Yorkers perceive their budget vote as a thing of value, rather than the
bauble it is. Lawmakers, who tend to be followers rather than leaders, will be
in no hurry to act.
Certainly, worse things can happen to students than to be confronted with some
hard truths about the world: that they may have to work hard for the things they
want; that politics sometimes trumps fairness and common sense; that adults can
be less than reliable. But they will learn those lessons eventually, anyway, and
probably in less disruptive ways than seeing their school programs arbitrarily
School budget voting has its defenders, of course, Sen. John R. Kuhl Jr. among
them. Kuhl, R-Bath, is chairman of the Senate Education Committee, and he says
that while the system may not be perfect, it arose and changed over the years in
response to specific problems. Whatever its imperfections, he says, budget
voting provides for public involvement and the chance to avoid unnecessary
To be sure, school budgeting is no more perfect than village or county
budgeting, with or without a public vote. Some districts may, indeed, spend
unwisely, and school taxes in this state are undeniably high. But there are
better ways to deal with that problem than to threaten each year to cut kids off
at the knees.
entirely agree, but they all reduce teacher and administrator power, and
that’s unacceptable to them.
Maybe if the budget vote made sense — if it didn’t unfairly single out students
for social punishment, and if voters showed real interest in exercising it, and
if the vote really affected school spending — maybe then its defenders could
make the case for it. But they can’t. This thing is no good. Sure, taxpayers are
frustrated; they have reason to be. But if New Yorkers need therapy, this
cockamamie system doesn’t do the job. It’s a carrier, not a cure.