By Tina Traster
June 14, 2008 -- It was no surprise when my husband lost his bid for a seat on our local school board. Not one for pressing the flesh or kissing babies, he ran an incisive campaign aimed at getting voters to understand the correlation between soaring property taxes and rising teachers' salaries and benefits.
He was not roundly rejected - he got nearly 300 votes - but the three candidates endorsed by the Nyack Teachers' Union swept to victory. No surprise there.
The union threw its weight behind one incumbent, a former music teacher and a squeaky banker type who rarely attended a Tuesday night school-board meeting. I believe they were betting their chips on candidates who would please them at the negotiating table this fall when the teachers' contract is up for renewal.
Accurately gauging the uneasy economic mood in our community, the local union worked harder this year than it had in recent elections to get the budget passed and to convince voters to support their candidates. It spent $5,000 to pepper the area with signs, stuff mailboxes with postcards and run phone banks.
The union chose school-board candidates who are "pro-education" - a catchphrase that's heard on the campaign trail frequently. As if someone who wants fiscal balance is "anti-education."
Candidates who are courting union support avoid talking about teachers' contracts on the campaign trail. This is especially true of incumbents, who must defend a precedent of 7 percent annual budget increases. Instead, they rail against state mandates, special education and transportation costs - the so-called culprits for soaring property taxes.
The New York State United Teachers union bolstered local affiliates with a $1 million television ad campaign urging voters to approve school budgets on May 20.
They did a good job pulling heartstrings in a 30-second spot that started with a voiceover that says "times are tough" and then had a senior citizen, a soccer mom and a businesswoman launch paper airplanes that asked voters to "pass on" the opportunity to children through a "yes" vote.
What they really urged voters to do is to keep the teachers' annual salary increases and benefits on track.
What I didn't know until I looked behind the numbers was that half of Nyack's 279 teachers in our tiny district earn between $90,000 and $130,000 for working 185 days per year. Stipends for everything from athletic coaching to heading up the origami club enable teachers to boost their income.
Everybody deserves to be paid what he or she is worth. But when times are tough, we in the private sector share the pain. We accept smaller raises or none at all. We cope when our health benefits are whittled down or we have to pay a higher premium. Most of us are grateful just to stay gainfully employed when we witness waves of layoffs, mergers and bankruptcies.
School districts seem to operate outside the parameters of logic. New York's property taxes lead the nation and are 79 percent above the national average. Suburbanites constantly complain about their taxes, with school taxes being the greatest portion of the burden.
Aware of the somber mood during the past budget season, districts in the Hudson Valley toed the line and kept proposals more modest, with 5 percent proposed increases rather than the typical 7 percent or 8 percent over the past decade.
A 5 percent tax hike in Nyack was approved - in fact, 92 percent of the districts in the region voted yes on budgets, slightly fewer than in recent years. But here's the rub: Nearly the entire increase will be used to fund contractual salary and benefit increases. State mandates, transportation, fuel costs and debt service will eat up the rest.
What's blatantly absent - and what my husband reminded voters of repeatedly during his shoot-the-messenger campaign - is that lower tax increases of 5 percent leave nothing left over for academic or extracurricular programs. In the end, it's the students who lose out.
If Gov. Paterson and the legislature get behind a 4 percent property-tax cap on school budgets, school-board members who go to the bargaining table with union members will need a 101 in contract negotiations.
Over time - and I would predict not too many years off - it will become obvious that teachers' salary and benefits packages are not sustainable. If covering their contractual increases exceeds a 4 percent cap, voters would have discretion to approve or deny a higher budget. Or, the squeeze could result in layoffs, hiring freezes and larger class sizes. So nobody wins.
This is precisely why the New York State United Teachers union in Albany is lobbying hard to defeat the property-tax cap, calling it "bad policy" that will erode the quality of public education. What it really erodes is the cushy security suburban teachers have enjoyed for many years.
It is time the phrase "pro-education" implied fiscal balance, not just handsome salary and benefits packages. A property-tax cap may seem like a rigid way for local districts to run their affairs, but if it brings more fairness to the table, then it's a great bargain.
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