Editorial: Spinning our wheels over school budgets, candidates

05/10/2012 7:00 AM |

And now we have one more reason why annual school budget votes are about as relevant and useful as an instruction booklet on programming a VCR.

The same is true, unfortunately, for school board elections.

Perhaps it was a wise move, perhaps not, but in either case the state’s 2 percent property tax cap is in full effect and all local school districts fashioned their 2012-13 spending proposals accordingly. To be sure, taxpayers can breathe a sigh of relief knowing that, in most cases, their school tax burden, which is about two-thirds of the average property tax bill, can rise only in small increments year to year. But not all school expenses grow by just 2 percent or less — heating oil is a prime example — and so schools must cut elsewhere (or drain reserves, if they have any) to comply with the state’s dictates.

That often means reducing teaching staff.

Since the vast majority of school programs and costs are mandated by the state, administrators, teachers, parents and other taxpayers really have little to say about what goes on inside the classroom and how much it costs. When we go to the polls in May, we’re not voting on the full package, but on the increase in a small percentage of the total.

Separate votes aren’t held on town or fire department budgets. The same is true for villages such as Greenport. That has always been the case. Why, then, do we hold all-but-meaningless votes for schools and libraries? It has evolved into little more than a cruel joke. Voters may think they’re having a direct impact on their local educational system, but that’s merely an illusion.

The 2 percent cap has made school board elections nearly as irrelevant. It may seem like profiling, but school board candidates seem to fall into two general categories. The first comprises dedicated, caring citizens who want to work for what’s best for students and everyone else. Then there are the tax watchdogs, primarily interested in keeping expenses down. Of course, many school board members, the better ones, actually belong to both groups.

It may seem strange that in all the school districts from Wading River to Orient there are only two contested seats this year — and in two districts seats will go empty for lack of candidates. But given the circumstances, it’s not strange at all.

How many people would want to join a school board when the most pressing business is not how to improve programs, but what to cut to satisfy the state? And if you’re worried about taxes, that worry is misplaced given that the state limit is about as tight as it gets.

As they often do themselves, the folks in Albany have us spinning our wheels.

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