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Michael Miller

Viewpoint

By Michael Miller
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The School Vote

Despite nationwide uncertainty, support for proposed school budgets exceeded previous records on Long Island.

Of the 58 school districts wholly or partly within Nassau County, we have 57 passed budgets as of this writing, equaling last year’s stunning results. Across Nassau and Suffolk counties’ 124 districts, voters in only three districts did not approve their budgets, a record in the post-World War II era.

Despite nationwide uncertainty, support for proposed school budgets exceeded previous records on Long Island.

Of the 58 school districts wholly or partly within Nassau County, we have 57 passed budgets as of this writing, equaling last year’s stunning results. Across Nassau and Suffolk counties’ 124 districts, voters in only three districts did not approve their budgets, a record in the post-World War II era.

Overall, Nassau County school district voters cast 63.0 percent of their votes in favor of proposed budgets, exceeding last year’s 59.6 percent and the highest percentage of support since districts returned to voting on the same day in 1996 (as they had for many years until the 1960s); 47 out of 58 districts had a higher percentage supporting the budget than in 2008. In fact, support was below 55 percent in only five Nassau districts, compared to seven in 2008, 11 in 2007 and 20 in 2006.

Not only was support for district budgets up, so was voter participation. Overall, there were 6,700 more votes cast in Nassau districts this year than last year, and turnout was up in 37 out of 58 districts. Full stats aren’t in yet, but it appears that overall turnout was up across the state. I found two upstate districts where turnout exceeded 40 percent, which is a significantly higher turnout than Nassau County has had for any county and town general election during the past decade.

Out of 671 districts that voted across the state, only 18 defeated school budgets. That’s a 97.3 passage rate, the highest since the State Education Department started compiling detailed statistics in 1969 (last year, 92.5 percent of New York districts passed their budgets on the first try). All 34 school districts in the heart of the Hudson Valley passed their budgets; 27 out of 28 budgets passed in Erie County, where some neighborhoods are struggling to survive.

What does it all mean? The people of Nassau County, Long Island and New York State are not willing to scapegoat their public schools. Despite the economic crisis, despite the obvious strains and cracks of the entire property tax system as we know it, people are not buying what some politicians and special interest groups are selling. When it’s clear that a good faith effort has been made to contain cost increases, people are willing to step up to maintain quality public schools.

Meanwhile, we need our local leaders and elected officials to step up themselves. We need to let them know that we are tired of rhetoric about tax reform and opposition to even the consideration of viable options or alternatives. A perfect storm that threatens the whole deck of cards may be brewing. A gaping state budget deficit and the end of the federal stimulus money in another year are ominous. Add to that Nassau County’s seeming inability to assess anything, particularly the fair value of 400,000 properties in a down market, and 2010-2011 may be the year of The Big One. Will we try to control events with meaningful changes, or will we be blown by the winds and hope that we don’t start losing entire districts in an unprecedented budget tsunami?

We also have the spectacle of county officials insisting that a massive mall project in the middle of the county move forward in order to “lower” property taxes. As if. It is this kind of sprawl development that is endangering the very viability of Our Long Island in the face of rising fuel costs and changing attitudes about what makes a community desirable.

We are going to make some tough decisions. We are far beyond “tax caps,” which do not fix anything or make it easier for struggling families to pay taxes. It is time to dust off the pile of plans from 70 years of governors, commissions, panels and advisory boards that have sat rotting. No one likes taxes. I don’t. But we can work out a system that is fairer and more logical, so that at least we can understand what is in the tax bill and not feel cheated.

Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. He lives in New Hyde Park.

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