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Budget votes: Good news for NY’s kids

In school districts across New York, the voters have spoken: The property-tax cap overwhelmingly approved last year by Gov. Cuomo and the Legislature works.

The cap has not only served to control tax increases, it’s also forced a major paradigm shift in the conversation over school property taxes.

We’ve shifted from “How much money can we spend and on what?” to “In a time of limited resources, what programs do we need to ensure school quality?”

In the first budget votes since the cap was approved last year, 92 percent of New York’s 675 school districts lived within the cap and were rewarded with a 99 percent approval rate.

Only 48 districts tried to exceed the cap, and 19 of them failed to get the supermajority they needed to do so. Many failed even to win a simple majority.

So kudos to Gov. Cuomo and the Legislature — and to school districts — for making tough choices to live within their means.

All told, 96 percent of school budgets were approved on Tuesday, which the New York State School Boards Association calls the second-best approval rate on record. It’s well above the historic average of 84 percent.

And early indications show that voter turnout, usually very low in school budget votes, was marginally better statewide — and significantly better in many districts.

Property taxes are among the most important issues facing suburban and upstate communities, where school taxes generally run several thousand dollars a year and can top $10,000 or more. (Residents vote on school budgets everywhere in New York except the “Big 5” cities, including New York City.)

During the debate over the cap, opponents warned it would fracture communities and spark “undemocratic minority rule.” Now the opposite has happened — budgets passed in record numbers, and the tax cap appears to have sparked even greater levels of civic engagement than usual.

In the Niagara Wheatfield school district in western New York, voters turned out in record numbers to defeat a proposed 9.9 percent tax hike. “There were a great many new voters, and others who hadn’t voted in years,” WIVB-TV reported.

In one Albany suburb, traffic was jammed for a mile around the high school where voting took place. That may not be much for the Long Island Expressway, but it’s a game-changer around the capital.

What this tells me is that the tax cap has led to increased focus on where best to spend precious education dollars, to new levels of fiscal discipline and respect for the taxpayers — and to more people voting. Sounds like exactly what our system needs.

Yet much work remains before we can say that every New York child has access to a great public school, and that every dollar will contribute to a better education.

Data released this week by the Citizens Budget Commission show that New York outpaces the rest of the country in education spending and invests considerably more than national norms on teacher salary and fringe benefits. In 2009, New York spent $17,746 per student; the national average was $10,590. Nearly $11,300 went toward teacher salaries and benefits — nearly twice the US average.

And, where national rates of education spending doubled from 1999 and 2009, New York spending grew by 169 percent.

Our return on that investment? Less than 75 percent of New York students are graduating from high school on time. That’s a disservice to students and taxpayers alike — a blow to our present and our future.

Let’s hope this year’s school-budget results mark the first step in breaking the cycle of tax more, spend more, get less, repeat.

Closing our staggering achievement gaps will require thoughtful investments grounded in the principles of accountability, flexibility and choice. Students’ interest must trump those of adults.

School administrators have complained that their entire budget increase will go to pay rising health-care and pension costs. Moving forward, we must ensure that budget growth instead pays for outstanding programs and innovations that help students learn.

The property-tax cap is hardly an assault on education spending, but a cue to leave behind our malfunctioning status quo in favor of smarter, more efficient budgeting. And better public schools.

Christina Grant is executive director of the New York Campaign for Achievement Now, a school-reform group.