We like to think that elections can make a difference, that listening to candidates explain their approach to issues can guide us to vote for those who will work toward solutions.
In this region there is no more prevalent issue than the burden of property taxes. A day on the campaign trail does not pass without a candidate or voter or more likely both noting that New York is steadily losing population, a claim easily verified as factual by consulting Census records, and that the state’s is among those with the highest taxes, a fact also verified by Census records. Anybody who has paid taxes each January and September can compare the bills and verify that schools are responsible for the largest proportion.
So as campaign issues go, this is one of the rare ones where the facts match the opinions.
How about solutions?
Nobody is promising to spend less on education and most voters are not pushing in that direction either. What both participants, candidate and voter alike, seem to want is an approach that would be more “fair” and that is where the discussion often seems to stop.
If taxing someone based on the value of their property is unfair, then you might think that taxing someone on the amount of money they earn would be more fair. However, any candidate willing to make such a proposal will quickly be attacked for raising taxes, even if those that go up would be balanced by those that go down.
So we pretend to talk about solutions while the rhetoric of campaigning rules out most of them.
Add to those impasses the perpetual clash between urban and rural schools, large and small districts, those in prosperous areas and those with greater needs and we have overlapping conversations with little hope for progress.
Then add a challenge outlined by a recent story in the Times Herald-Record that nobody really wants to talk about, the fact that as costs and tax burdens for education increase, the size of our schools has been steadily decreasing. We truly are paying more for less and the only likely prospect for the future is even more spending, tempered only by the artificial cap on tax increases imposed by the Legislature, to educate fewer students.
This should be the subject of a statewide effort, one that would try to make schools more efficient and ensure truly equal opportunity, including such notions as access to both advanced courses and remedial help to improve graduation rates. But any statewide effort would run into the most sacred of all beliefs concerning education — local control.
Nowhere does that show up better than in the schools serving Tuxedo where sentiment opposing any future merger or combination has produced a district with 235 students, only 63 in the high school and a per-pupil spending cost of $56,090, more than double those in most other local districts.
That is what local control can bring, unchecked costs and limited opportunities for students. And while Tuxedo is an extreme example, it provides a warning for all those other districts where costs continue to rise and enrollments continue to drop.