School safety proposals, whether they are “hard” as in armed security staff, “soft” as in programs meant to proactively reduce risk by identifying and counseling students who may be a potential threat, or some combination of these, must all confront the thorny problem as to how they will be funded. While some grants might provide a temporary solution, they are rarely the source of sustainable on-going revenue. To give the reader some idea of just how financially challenging some proposals can be, the most costly “hard” solution to place School Resource Officers in every school in the Saratoga Springs School District is estimated to cost approximately $500,000.00.
The reality is that the Saratoga Springs School District is already struggling to reduce costs to address a deficit it faces in the coming year. Complicating the process is the fact that New York State’s contribution to school districts varies from year to year. Given that the state budget is supposed to be passed by April 1 but has not always been passed on time, school systems often have to craft their budgets without actually knowing how much money they will have.
Added to this uncertain state funding landscape is the challenge districts face raising money locally because of the New York State tax cap.
In 2011 New York State established a tax levy limit (generally referred to as a tax cap) that affected all local governments and school districts except New York City and the “Big Five” school districts (New York City, Yonkers, Buffalo, Rochester, and Syracuse). Under this law the property taxes levied by local governments and school districts cannot increase by more than 2% or the rate of inflation whichever is lower. Tying the cap to the rate of inflation has meant that in some years local governments could raise taxes only 1% or less . Conversely if inflation rises above 2% local governments will have to come up with a budget that is not allowed to keep up with inflation.
Local governments and school districts have the option to override the tax cap but it must be by a super majority not a majority vote. For local governments (counties, cities, towns, villages and fire districts) this can be done with a 60% vote of the governing board. School districts, however, can only override the tax cap with the approval of 60% of the voters in the district—a much more difficult hoop to jump through.
The original tax cap was not permanent but has been renewed every few years. This year Governor Cuomo has made making the tax cap permanent a priority.
Critics of Cuomo and the tax cap are advocating for a series of reforms if the cap is to be made permanent. Some of the reforms Legislators are currently looking at include:
*Removal of the 60% supermajority requirement to override the cap and requiring instead a simple majority vote
*Amend the cap to make it 2% or the rate of inflation whichever is greater
*Exempt a number of expenses such as the maintenance and repair of school buildings, projects related to natural disasters, and school safety and school resource officers.
Critics of the tax cap argue that while the tax cap has generated savings for property owners, without sufficient state aid and with many mandated costs, many districts struggle to find the resources to fund needed programs. This could certainly be the situation the Saratoga School District finds itself in as it considers various proposals to address school safety issues. Without reforms to the tax cap the District will have a very limited ability to increase revenue . The question will then become what existing programs and staff to cut to accommodate new safety measures.
In the end voters will have to decide not only how they want the district to address school safety but what they are willing to pay either in taxes or lost programs and staff.