Let's Stop Playing "Small Ball."

This article explains the nature of the systemic problem we're having funding our schools, although I don’t agree with its conclusions.

We’re losing control over our ability to make decisions concerning our school district.  State mandates, especially the unfunded ones, are a culprit.  So is the tax cap and its exceedingly-difficult-to-pierce supermajority requirement.

In the end, most of the big decisions on the budget are already made for us and beyond our control.  The game we’re playing is, for right now, “small ball” over the few million allocated to optional things like clubs, sports, and other things the state doesn’t mandate we carry.  The scary thing is that if things keep going the way they’re going, we’re not going to be able to support programs that we’re required to have.  We’ll quickly march from educational insolvency to financial insolvency.  And it won’t be just Sachem.  Similar problems will be experienced by school systems statewide.

In that way, the above-linked article’s conclusions are correct.  Eventually, the only option we’re going to have in order to cut costs is to cut teachers.  Nobody wants to see that happen.

But accepting a death spiral means we’ve exhausted all avenues.  And we haven’t yet.

To fund our school district, we need to stop playing small ball.  People who play small ball end up arguing endlessly about sports vs. clubs, Arrowettes vs. full-year kindergarten or administration salaries vs. equivalents in the private sector.  Small ball people argue about the tiny, flexible portion of the budget that makes a very small difference to the overall picture.

Nope.  We need to focus on the big picture.  IMHO, here’s how we do it.

1)      Vote in state elections.  Vote to sweep out incumbents.  If you value your childrens’ educational experience, we need to send the message to Albany that when they need a couple billion dollars in revenue to balance the budget, they can’t take it from education and simply expect us to cope.  We also need to get rid of the tax cap, or at least get rid of the supermajority requirement to pierce it.

2)      Work with local politicians to help the Long Island economy.  This is the fix that’s more difficult to connect to the situation, and the remedy that’s going to force me to say some things that are not going to be well-received.  But suffice it to say that we need to attract more of the right businesses to Long Island, and we need to do it in a way that’s not damaging to our tax base.

So with #2, here’s the unpopular bit: Vast swaths of Long Island have become what I call “Economic Flyover Country.”

When I was a kid, we used to have real industry on Long Island.  The kids I played with had parents who worked for Grumman or Arrow or at the Shoreham Nuclear Power Station.  The departure of the aerospace/defense industry on Long Island is an old story, but more recent developments give me pause.

We get excited when UPS announces they want to hire 3,000 seasonal workers locally, but we’re not outraged when JP Morgan Chase announces they’re laying off 195 and closing their offices in Garden City.  “Big deal,” you might be thinking.  “What’s 195 in comparison to 3,000?”

We need sustainable jobs out here on Long Island.  The good corporate jobs.  Not the short-term contract service jobs.  And notice that when you see announcements about jobs coming to or leaving Long Island, it’s the service jobs that are coming, and the corporate ones that are departing.

You might not think this is a big deal, and that’s it’s reflective of the U.S. economy’s move to a service base.  But think about it in the context of our schools.

When you have a corporate headquarters in your school district, the corporation cares about what happens locally.  They source employees locally.  They care about education in that case, because if you have a good school system, it’s easier to convince employees to relocate.  It’s also easier to keep the people you have.  Whether they’re contributing through property taxes or PILOTs doesn’t really matter – they’re part of the tax base and part of the community and we ought to be doing what we can to encourage them.

While our local politicians are working hard, and they have some important victories to crow about, I have two problems.  The first is that property tax breaks are too often dangled out there as an incentive.  This has the exact opposite effect intended, because wherever these companies land on Long Island, the school district loses out on revenue while needing to support an influx of students.

My second problem is that we’re not selling our proximity to New York City, the quality of our workers or our other qualities very well, and as a result, New Jersey and other locales are kicking our butts when we compete to bring good jobs to Long Island.  We’ve had some awful losses the past few years.  

High cost of living, brain drain and tax issues are the likely culprits.  (If we’re not careful, transportation and infrastructure could become others, but that’s another topic for another blog post.)  But the truth is that we should have these companies headquartered on Long Island and we should be reaping the benefits. 

There are a kajillion programs designed to help bring business to Long Island.  We’ve got incubators and accelerators and business zones – all sorts of things.  They may have some limited success getting startups to locate here, but what about the big boys?  When was the last time we convinced a major public company to relocate its headquarters to Long Island?

For the long term, we need to invest in attracting quality businesses to Long Island.  Incubating and accelerating startups is a good start, but our politicians need to get in the game and do what they can to be competitive.

So, as we’re thinking about voting out the state politicians who gave us the tax cap and cut our state aid, we need to also be thinking about who might be good at helping attract businesses to Long Island.  And we need to vote for them.

We need to take advantage of our size.  Sachem is huge.  And with a number of interested, involved voters in the district, perhaps we should think about forming some sort of special interest group.  As a voting bloc, if many of us could align behind restoring education cuts, repealing tax cap legislation, controlling state mandates and investing in bringing business to our area, that would be something I could get behind.