Note: I'm pasting this piece from the New York Times because it struck me as similar to what we are experiencing in Amherst -- a divide between those who are strongly in favor of passing the override to support town services (including schools) and those who are fearful of struggling to pay higher taxes. And it raises tought questions about how we pay for education, and the link between school finances and quality, and the search for long-term solutions. These are not easy questions for anyone, and they are not questions that Amherst alone is addressing.
New York Times
By PETER APPLEBOME
Published: March 10, 2010
In a village with a shot glass past and an increasingly white wine present, Vanessa Merton speaks both languages. She grew up in this river town back in the days when the streets were packed each morning with workers heading down to the Anaconda Wire and Cable plant. She’s now a lawyer of a liberal bent and a law school professor in a town increasingly populated by artists, investment types, writers and others for whom Hastings has become Westchester’s hip, artsy un-suburb.
So it made sense that in the torrent of agitated comments about the proposed school budget — one letter to the local paper accused antitax activists of “emotional terrorism” — she felt obligated to remind school board members of the class divide churning just beneath the competing narratives of catering to the needs of the schools and catering to the needs of the people who pay for them.
“There are a lot of people who move into this community,” she said at a noisy board meeting. “I hate to use the dirty word ‘money,’ but who have a lot more money and a lot more privilege and a lot better jobs, and you simply aren’t thinking about the reality that for some people, you’re making it impossible for them to remain in their homes.”
She added, “We’re not talking about desecrating the sacred Hastings schools.” But she argued that in the midst of the economic carnage, maybe the old rules of education finance no longer apply.
This seems an odd place for Round 6,753 of the tax wars. The Hastings district is one of the big draws for the refugees from Brooklyn and the Upper West Side who move here. Taxes are high, but 20 districts in Westchester have higher tax rates.
But another appeal of Hastings has been that it’s not an upscale monoculture but a diverse village, with working-class families who’ve been here for generations and newcomers staking their claim. It’s mostly the long-term residents, born here or not, who say the financial demands of the school are outstripping people’s ability to pay.
When you drive around town you see the antitax signs (Quality Education? Yes! $27,500 per student? No!). More than 800 people have signed a petition circulated by the Hastings Alliance for Affordable Taxes calling for lower taxes — a 5 percent decrease is a figure cited by speakers at public meetings.
Particularly among longtime residents, the unemployed and the elderly, there’s a feeling that they’re not getting any kind of annual raises — so teachers, administrators and the schools shouldn’t either.
John Brink, a freelance landscaper, said almost everyone he grew up with in town has moved away, and he’s worried the taxes will chase him off, too. “This used to be a blue-collar town; now it’s couples with two jobs in New York, a Volvo and a nanny.”
Hastings is hardly alone. After the national antitax uproar over the past year, it was inevitable that the next round would play out where suburbanites pay most of their taxes — for the schools. And truth to tell, plenty of relative newcomers with children in the schools are reaching the breaking point, too.
The local school board seems to have gotten the message, even if people argue over whether it’s gotten all of it. The school budget increased by 6.69 percent in 2007-8. The proposed budget calls for flat spending that will require a $1.26 million cut in current expenditures to compensate for cuts in state aid, new mandates and other costs. After the initial roar from the antitax faction, other groups have sprung up to support the board, call for a more temperate debate and look for long-term solutions rather than draconian quick fixes.
“WHEN times were good, we operated under the assumptions of rising income levels, rising property levels and rising retirement portfolios,” said Gabrielle Lesser, the school board president. “Then the recession hit and we’ve had to question all those assumptions.”
But the real question, still unanswered, is whether you can cut school taxes without damaging schools. The average teacher salary in Hastings is $96,597. The superintendent makes $228,000. There are AP courses with a handful of kids, kindergarten Spanish, rich extracurricular arts and sports.
The issues go way beyond isolated budget lines, to the demands of unfunded mandates, the overreliance on property tax, the logic of small independent districts. Still, there are lots of things no longer affordable. The old normal in public schools may be one of them.
My Goal in Blogging
I started this blog in May of 2008, shortly after my election to the School Committee, because I believed it was very important to both provide the community with an opportunity to share their thoughts with me about our schools and to provide me with an opportunity for me to ask questions and share my thoughts and reasoning. I have found the conversation generated on my blog to be extremely helpful to me in learning community views on many issues. I appreciate the many people who have taken the time to share their views. I believe it is critical to the quality of our public schools to have a public discussion of our community priorities, concerns and aspirations.