Rural schools on the brink
In the next five years, it is likely that 100 K-12 Schools will close their doors in upstate New York.
This will not happen because they are poorly managed or fail to teach their kids. They will close because they are rural and there will be no way to pay to the bills. Students from those districts will be bused to other districts an hour each way …in the snow.
Rural communities have very little political clout. That has resulted in a policies that are self-contradictory and self-destructive. Put these two policy decisions together:
1.) The state is planning to dramatically reduce state aid to rural districts, asking local communities to bear a greater burden of the cost of education, shifting moneys downstate.
2.) The state enacted a property tax cap on local communities that makes it impossible for local communities to bear that increased burden, even if they wanted to.
Is the money supposed to fall out of the sky? Arithmetic seems to have gone out of fashion.
Nobody likes to pay taxes. But some taxes are more fair than other taxes.
Property tax is an unjust tax. It is left over from bygone days when the agrarian economy assumed that the more land you had, the more money you had. This hasn’t been true for a century in Upstate New York. Ask anyone in the farming business.
Draw a simple graph on a piece of paper. One line follows a gentle upward incline as you move left to right. That line represents the sluggish increase our real property tax base over the past ten years.
Put another line on the same graph inclining more steeply. That represents the increase in the real cost of educating our kids. Some of those costs are under our control, most are not.
On the left side of the graph, the lines are close together. They allow you to do what we’ve have been doing: cutting, patching, begging and borrowing to fill the gap. However, when you get to the right side of the graph, the lines have spread far apart. You reach a breaking point at which schools can no longer be funded this way.
At that point, you either change how you fund education or you close the school. A hundred schools will close soon. We have reached that point.
Who will survive the first round of Armageddon? Communities with a strong commercial tax base.
When we chase businesses out of town because the buildings they occupy might momentarily offend our architectural sensibility during the 90 seconds a day we drive past them, we forget the more long-term effects that our decisions might have.
When the wealth of your community increases, the burden on the individual taxpayer decreases. With a property tax cap in place you can’t raise taxes, so growing the tax base is the only possible way generate new revenue and survive into the future.
But when potential employers come to your community, they want to know that their employees will be happy to live there. They want to know if the community is safe. Will the roads be plowed? Will the children of their employees receive a good education?
If the school is in danger of closing, the company goes elsewhere. If the company goes elsewhere, the tax base continues to erode. If the tax base erodes, there will be no money to preserve historic buildings.
We are five minutes from midnight. There is still time to change our direction and reset our priorities. We sit on the couch, watch TV, and wait for the White House and Capital Hill to bring us jobs. Let’s get serious about our own survival.
The future we feared is happening now.