LI BUDGET DEFEATS: Schools can’t ignore voters

Tuesday’s outcome showed education officials should avoid taking taxpayers for granted


May 20, 2004

By Mark J. Grossman

I hate to say this, but in looking at Tuesday’s school budget election results it’s clear that many of us in the public education community were asleep at the switch.

Maybe it’s because anti-school spending groups lack the large- scale organized focus of the past. Or perhaps it’s because many districts weathered tough budgets in past years.

No matter why, Tuesday’s results show Long Island taxpayers can’t be taken for granted because, when they are, there will be serious consequences. But it seems almost impossible to make sense of the budget results using traditional data because, on paper, they don’t make sense.
The average spending increase for Nassau districts where budgets passed was 7.5 percent. Those that failed increased spending by virtually the same amount, 7.9 percent.

In Suffolk, spending hikes were higher in general, but again the gap was hardly one that indicates a trend: an average of 8.1 percent for districts where budgets passed versus 9 percent for those that failed.

Look at rich versus poor, big versus small, black versus white, North Shore versus South Shore, and you come away with the view of former House Speaker Tip O’Neill that “all politics is local.”

The problem: Local issues require local mobilization, and in too many cases public education groups were simply caught off guard.

Sure, there are some overriding issues that contributed to Long Island’s largest school budget rejection since same-day voting was state-mandated in 1996.

With no solution in sight for the Campaign for Fiscal Equity’s successful lawsuit, suburban voters should be concerned about the future of state education funding. Should the court ultimately impose a solution, they fear monies will be targeted to New York City only, leaving needy suburban and upstate city school districts in the lurch.

Cost factors beyond the control of school boards drove many budget increases to levels that were among the highest ever. Through the 1990s, a booming stock market allowed state pension funds to grow to robust proportions, allowing employers and employees to reduce or eliminate contributions. But Wall Street malaise turned that around quickly, and school districts have been handed pension system invoices 20 percent higher, or more, than last year.

Add to that the increased cost of health insurance, heating oil, motor fuel and other high-cost consumables, and one can see how the lion’s share of budget hikes for many school districts were 4 or 5 percent before factoring in contractual obligations for salaries and service contracts.

School budgets are one of the few places where people can express their anger, express their outrage and express their frustrations by voting “no.”

And they did.

But to make sense of why, specifically, budgets failed in some districts and passed in others, one really has to look locally.

Huge school construction projects give taxpayers the jitters, and that was the case in places like Patchogue-Medford and Sachem. Roslyn voters lost faith in their educational leadership and soundly defeated their budget after news that an assistant superintendent embezzled school funds and the district may have tried to cover it up.

Voters in my district, South Country, seemed propelled to vote “no” because of persistent low test scores and insurgent board candidates who tapped into this disenchantment. Frankly, we didn’t see it coming.

We surely won’t take anything or anyone for granted on the re-vote, you can be sure of that. And school boards all across Long Island ought to heed that advice as well by addressing even the most local of concerns because we only have one more crack at the apple before an austerity budget now called a “contingency” budget by the state kicks in.

Perhaps not enough of us remember the pain of those austere days a decade ago.

Mark J. Grossman of East Patchogue is a member of the South Country School District Board of Education. He is a principal in a Bohemia-based public-relations firm.

Mark J. Grossman: Newsday (Combined editions). Long Island, NY
May 20, 2004 pg. A.49 Copyright (c) 2004, Newsday, Inc.