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Michael Miller

Viewpoint

By Michael Miller
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The School Elections Matter

School budgets were approved in 119 out of Long Island’s 124 districts. Some people don’t want you to notice.

61.8 percent of Nassau County school voters cast their ballots to approve proposed budgets, up from 57.6 percent in May 2010. Budget support was up in 50 out of the 58 districts. Support for the budget fell below 55 percent in only six districts, and broke 65 percent in fifteen districts. Overall turnout was down from last year, apparently due to a lack of competitive school board races in too many districts (when school board trustees are continually portrayed as incompetent or corrupt dupes, it’s understandable). However, 144,000 residents participated in Nassau County districts, which is the fourth highest turnout in the 16 elections since we switched back to having all districts vote on the same day.

Turnout was up in 11 districts. In my home district, candidates for one of the board seats ran campaigns that were more visible and active than those of all but one Republican town campaign of the last decade (not an exaggeration), complete with mailings, the dreaded Robo-calls and people walking around with signs. More than 4,000 residents came out to vote, a participation rate that is comparable to recent November general elections. Support for the district’s budget shot up almost nine full percentage points.

The 88,971 votes cast in favor of proposed school budgets last week are a little under three-fourths of the number of votes cast for County Executive Mangano in 2009. This school vote was a pretty good sampling of public opinion in this county. Despite the assumptions, claims and desires of some of our elected officials and our self-appointed, would-be opinion manufacturers, many Nassau residents aren’t so quick to lay the bulk of blame for our fiscal and taxation problems on educators, school children and parents struggling to preserve a way forward for their kids.

678 New York school districts voted on budgets last week, and voters in 634 of them (93.5 percent) approved budgets.

You wouldn’t know this from most of the news coverage. Not skipping a beat, Newsday headlined its first posted story about the high passage rate on Long Island with, “Voters: It’s Time to Get Tough on Budgets.” This is the same crew that headlined a story (March 16) about the average 2.17 percent increase in proposed budgets across Long Island’s 124 districts with, “School Taxes Across LI Set to Sharply Rise.” Pretty embarrassing stuff.

Another embarrassed organization is Brighter Choice Foundation, an advocacy group for the 11 charter schools now operating in the City of Albany. Thanks to digging by the Albany Times Union newspaper, it was revealed that this group had invested large amounts of cash in anonymous, factually incorrect mass mailings urging defeat of the school budget. Albany taxpayers now use a full quarter of their school budget to subsidize the expenses of charter schools. If charter schools are all about delivering quality education, why this attempt to kneecap the traditional public school system? Why the secrecy? Who is investing in these campaigns, and what is their motivation?

Meanwhile, this push for a 2 percent tax increase limit continues. This is a symbolic gesture that won’t fix anything, and will permanently lock in inequities between districts and austerity that bleeds away results within most districts. Long Islanders were presented with 2.17 percent in increases last week. Is that extra seventeen-hundredths of a percent supposed to represent reform or sustainable change?

I go much further. I don’t want to see school property tax increases limited. I want to see them slashed.

Consider: “Cuomo Proposes Tax on Incomes to Aid Schools.” and “Cuomo’s School Proposal Strikes a Chord.” These are actual headlines (New York Times, January 1993) about the centerpiece proposal of Governor Mario Cuomo’s State of the State message. Long Islanders have indicated a willingness to try fairer, more reality-based ways to pay for schools in survey after survey for decades. Why exactly is the most regressive, illogical taxation system imaginable suddenly so sacrosanct to politicians in both major parties?

We’re not getting answers to a lot of questions. We’re not even supposed to ask the questions anymore.

Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. Email: millercolumn@optimum.net