Education Op-Ed/From the front lines of a school budget battle
Misinformation and apathy are the twin killers of a school district.
I live in the Clarence Central School District. When we moved to Western New York almost fifteen years ago, we deliberately bought our home in what was then the top-ranked district, according to Buffalo Business First.
Clarence’s school district is a point of pride for the town’s residents; it has one of the best music and sports programs in the region, excels in academics, and—most notably—spends less per pupil than almost every other district in the region. Clarence routinely tops the rankings for administrative efficiency and bang for taxpayer buck.
However, in 2013, an extraordinarily well-funded and professionally organized campaign led to the failure of a proposed school budget and ushered in a new era of annual battles over district funding. Prior to this, starting in the 2000s, the district had been slowly whittling down its curriculum, getting rid of non-mandated items such as the student enrichment program. It spent down its fund balance in order to maintain or reduce the school tax rate—an action that seemed great at the time, but became a disaster when state funding abruptly fell precipitously during the 2008–2009 global economic crisis.
At this point, Albany implemented its “gap elimination adjustment” initiative, withholding state funding for education and balancing its own budget on the backs of local school districts. Clarence alone lost $16 million in state funding over the course of the past several years, but a property tax cap tied the district’s hands when trying to make up the lost funding.
In 2013, a perfect financial storm descended. State aid remained lower than normal and the state teacher pension fund was still feeling the hangover from the stock market crash, so the local share of the school budget was higher than expected. It was a one-year crisis, and the school board decided to hike the levy by nine-point-eight percent in order to maintain current school services. It was a test for conservative, tax-averse Clarence—would the community support maintaining the quality of the school district in this emergency situation?
The answer was a resounding “no.”
Pro-school parents assembled a ragtag team to advocate for the school budget, but the anti-tax forces were well-organized, spent thousands of dollars, and played fast and loose with the facts. Three separate pieces of direct mail were sent to every mailbox in town, telling people that their taxes would go up ten percent, that the school district was irresponsible, the students and teachers greedy, and urging a no vote. The leader of this effort had been active with the Koch brothers’ “Americans for Prosperity,” which advocates for privatization of education. Weakening the public system would go a long way toward accomplishing that goal.
The pro-school faction never had a chance; they had no money, and were caught unaware, trying to play catch-up with their opponents. In order to pass a budget with a levy hike over the tax cap, the district had to win by a supermajority. They instead lost by a supermajority.
A revote budget was presented within the cap, and passed in June. But in the process, the district was gutted.
Between 2011 and 2013, the district cut 113 full-time positions, fifty-three of them in 2013. In 2013, the high school lost art, math, English, tech, and business teachers. The entire family and consumer science department was cut, as well as a guidance counselor. Other casualties included three middle school teachers—in art, English, and math—three K-5 teachers, two librarians, twelve teacher’s aides, four music teachers, the district’s last social worker, and summer school. Thirty-eight middle and high school clubs and extracurricular activities disappeared. The revote budget eliminated all freshman sports, affecting ninety students, and all modified middle school sports, affecting 225 boys and girls.
When these sorts of cuts are implemented, parents must find privately funded alternatives. This hurts the poorest families—almost nine percent of the student body—the hardest. But the anti-tax activists call parents and kids “brainwashed” and accuse us of being in the thrall of the teachers’ union. It doesn’t occur to them that parents will fight for their kids’ educations.
The Clarence Schools Enrichment Foundation, which had coincidentally been founded that year, helped raise money to fund the restoration of clubs and teams—but only for one year.
The pro-school faction pledged never again to be caught by surprise. We organized. We prepared for 2014. We raised money, using signs, leafleting, and social media to get our message out. The opposition was not as well organized, advocating only against a bus proposal and pushing a board candidate whose kids attend a private religious school. We won handily, as did our endorsed school board candidates. In late 2014, voters overwhelmingly approved a capital improvement and sports field plan to repair and modernize the districts’ buildings and grounds.
We were able to keep it up in 2015, despite increased state aid and a levy increase well below the tax cap. For the first time in years, teachers were added back to the district in order to reduce class sizes and better implement the district’s curricula, especially in math, English, music, and special education. Although still content to spread misinformation, the opposition made up for its poor organization by waging war directly against the teachers and students, going so far as to use a private correspondence from an angry teacher as a campaign prop. Thankfully, the one-time emergency of 2013 that arose with pension payments to cover a stock market crash did not recur.
The power of our organization met its match when, literally days before the vote, residents were hit with a townwide reassessment. School opponents seized on this to scare people into thinking that their taxes would go up even more. But a levy isn’t the same as a tax-rate increase. Indeed, the ultimate tax rate is expected to decrease dramatically in response to the general re-evaluation of town property values. We fought hard, treating this like a major election. We raised money for a direct mail piece, signs, an ad in the Bee, and thousands of palm cards. We had parents and students doing lit drops, and dedicated volunteers spent all day on election day, pushing palm cards to arriving voters.
Preparation makes all the difference. Apathy can be defeated—not completely, but enough to protect the schools and town property values. As Clarence begins the slow process of rebuilding what’s been lost in the past decade, parents continue to build an organization that will fight every year to ensure the continued excellence of a public school district in a world where privatization remains popular.
Among the highest duties of a society is the education of its children. Those who recognize this must be vigilant and organized. What happened in Clarence can happen in any district.
Alan Bedenko is an attorney, writer, and activist living in Clarence.