Friday, 28 May 2010 00:00
Last week, despite predictions from Governor Paterson and others, Long Islanders and other New Yorkers again refused to scapegoat public school districts for a nationwide public finance meltdown. As long as school leaders show a good faith effort to hold down costs and understand their special responsibility to strained taxpayers, most of us are willing to cut the kids some slack and try to hold things together. How long they can continue to extend that rope is not clear at all. For now, it seems that residents don’t want education used as a prop in some zero-sum game of pass-the-buck.
For more than a million Long Islanders, the school district is the only government institution under true local control. There has been a special relationship between most Long Islanders and our largely-excellent school systems, and we are giving them the benefit of the doubt. At a time in which faith in many of our important public institutions has sunk to 1989 Iron Curtain levels, it is impressive that residents in 114 out of 124 Long Island school districts approved proposed budgets on the first day. The same percentage of budgets passed across the entire state.
It wasn’t a wipe–out. Despite the high passing rate, the 57.6 percent budget support across Nassau was actually the fourth lowest in the fifteen years since we switched back to having all districts vote at the same time (the mean average, 1996 to 2000, is 59.1 percent). In the preliminary results, my own local district’s budget lost by a single vote. No fear. Losing by two votes is a frustration, but losing by one single vote is an incredible motivational opportunity.
Among the surprises, the overall percentage of support was higher in Suffolk than in Nassau (60.8 to 57.6 percent) and six of the ten defeated budgets were in Nassau districts. Once again, the conventional wisdom was turned upside down, and I love it.
Some claim that these consistent votes of support for school budgets lack credibility or validity because the level of participation is not high enough. If some goofy politicians try this on you, then ask them about the credibility of some of their own colleagues and peers. Last week, Nassau County residents cast 91 to 93 percent of the number of votes they cast for the county legislature in 2007 (depending on whether you include all three districts that stretch into Suffolk County). The 163,000 votes cast by Suffolk residents in the school elections represent more than 90 percent of the 179,000 votes cast in last fall’s district attorney election.
In 49 out of the 58 Nassau school districts (that includes three districts that cross into Suffolk), more votes were cast than in both May 2009 and May 2008.
The trends are pretty clear. It’s not the public schools that people resent most. The schools aren’t driving growing resentment against our leaders. It’s the leaders themselves. You know, the ones who keep putting us into these tough situations and in most cases are unwilling to even attempt to drive us out of the ditch.
But this is neither gloating nor even an expression of relief. On paper, we have a reprieve that puts off the large-scale dismantling of Long Island’s public schools. What is likely to be a journey of several years is still just unfolding. We have to address, finally, the basic sustainability of how we pay for our public schools, our libraries, our parks, our roads, our public improvements. No one can be sure that even a dime of the promised state aid will actually come through. No one can be sure of anything right now.
Yet, despite our ongoing economic uncertainty and growing sense of crisis, Long Islanders have demonstrated a strong sense of justice in a matter critical to their wallets. We are willing to invest in the quality of our lives, and the schools don’t walk the plank first.
Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. Email: email@example.com