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BUDGETS Voters seem happy with tax increases

It should come as no surprise that all local school budgets were approved last week.

There wasn’t much controversy on the ballot. Thanks to continued state aid increases and aid remaining from the federal government’s COVID largesse, there weren’t huge tax increases to be voted on. That meant there weren’t major layoffs of teachers or staff, nor were there program cuts – all of which are usually what drive people to vote down school budgets.

Eventually, that will change.

Gov. Kathy Hochul tried to begin tightening the public education spending belt this year with a focus on small, rural schools, but was rebuffed by state legislators who not only eliminated her cuts to those districts but approved additional aid. The most recent data available shows elementary and secondary school spending in New York hit a new record high of $29,873 per pupil in 2021-22 – bringing New York to nearly double the national average of $15,633, according to the Empire Center for New York Policy. An early analysis by the Empire Center shows budgets presented to voters proposed spending an average of $33,404 per student, a 4.4% increase from the current school year. Most districts (459) planned to increase total spending by more than inflation, even as only 119 of the 667 districts expect enrollment to increase by 1% or more and almost a third of districts (218) expect enrollment declines of at least 1%.

In nearly one-quarter of districts (157), spending is set to rise more than 5.4%, more than twice as quickly as the expected 2.7% increase in the Consumer Price Index forecast by state officials for 2024. Every district plans to spend at least $20,000 per student, more than half of districts plan to spend at least $33,000 and nearly one-quarter of districts (142) plan to spend more than $40,000.

In our opinion, that qualifies as runaway growth in education spending.

At some point a reckoning is coming. If state aid doesn’t keep pace with this spending, especially when COVID-19 aid is exhausted, many school districts will have to propose the types of cuts or program changes that bring people out to their polling place to vote budgets down.

Voters don’t care about runaway spending when someone else is paying the tab. They’ll care when local schools have to make cuts and exceed the tax cap to balance their budgets. And, remember, the financial future of every school district is in voters’ hands – vote wisely or open your pocketbook.

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