Everyone knows how important early childhood education is to the later success of our children. We know this anecdotally from watching our own children learn and grow, and we know it scientifically as a result of many long-term studies. Toward that end, the Miller Place School District offers half-day kindergarten — and many within the community have long wished that we could afford a full-day program.
This year, for the 2013-14 school budget, MPSD Superintendent Marianne Higuera has proposed a $1.1-million expansion of programs that is unprecedented in the district's history. Dr. Higuera's budget includes about $700,000 to expand existing curricular and co-curricular programs, plus about $400,000 to expand MPSD's kindergarten to full day.
The first two years of the full kindergarten expansion would be paid for by the state aid. The problem is, however, that the MPSD community's ability to afford and, therefore, to sustain full-day kindergarten in the third year and beyond without cutting already existing programs has not been demonstrated.
Dr. Higuera's budget results in a tax increase that is within the state-mandated "tax cap," which makes sure that school and local government tax levy growth does not exceed 2 percent — with certain exceptions. Within MPSD, 2 percent plus those exceptions equals a proposed increase in school taxes of 4.31 percent — which is higher than last year’s tax increase of 3.63 percent and which must be compared to the national inflation rate of 1.3 percent or New York’s inflation rate of about 2 percent.
In actuality, if Dr. Higuera's proposed budget is not altered, then we will be facing an increase in school taxes of greater than 4.31 percent — more like 5.3 percent.
This is because the MPSD Superintendent did not figure into the school budget and tax equation the fact that, again last year as with the year before, many MPSD homeowners successfully grieved their property taxes, thereby lowering the assessed values on their homes. Taking this community-wide lower assessment into account would result in an increase in school taxes of approximately 5.3 percent — about one full percent higher than what we were told.
Returns from the recent gains in U.S. stock market aside, many within the MPSD community, as in the rest of the country, are still struggling economically due to the Great Recession. Unlike school district employees, many MPSD residents have not had pay raises for few years just so they could keep their jobs. In addition, those of us in the community with federal government or government-contractor jobs are facing furloughs and other negative financial consequences of the federal government's sequestration. So now is not the time for us to face paying 5.3 percent more in school taxes.
Some defend Dr. Higuera's budget and tax increase in general and full-day kindergarten in specific by saying MPSD's having full-day kindergarten will increase property values by making MPSD homes more attractive to young families looking to buy. This is just wishful thinking.
Since a mortgage payment includes both the cost of the loan and the payment of property taxes, the higher those taxes — which include school taxes — are, the smaller the house and the loan on that house a family can afford. For many young families, higher school taxes can make enough of a difference to prevent them from buying into MPSD. So, instead of bringing young families into the district, the added tax burden of full-day kindergarten will keep them out.
And we have only discussed the cost of the first year or two of offering full-day kindergarten in MPSD. The cost will blow up in year three, after state aid for establishing this program goes away — unless existing programs are cut. Given the community's uncomfortable wrestling with last year's budget cuts to programs in order to present an affordable budget to voters, which was passed, we don't want to go through that again.
So, although full-day kindergarten is a sound educational idea, the reality is that, at this time, it is unsustainable for MPSD.