2010-09-22 / Front Page

Politicians Criticize High School Taxes

Staff Reports

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It seems the only issue many Putnam politicians can agree upon is that school taxes are too high. Not only are many candidates for election this November in accord on this topic, but nearly every town supervisor within Putnam County has blamed high taxes on local schools.

On September 7, during the Republican primary debate hosted by the PCN&R at the Villa Barone, the candidates for county executive, Senator Vincent Leibell and Mary Ellen Odell, spoke of the need for school tax reform.

“It took me about three days to get the courage to open up that school tax bill,” said Odell, who lost in last week’s Republican primary to Leibell but who is running in the general election on the Independence Party line. “School tax reform in Putnam is the most paramount thing to reducing taxes in this county,” she said.

Leibell agreed with his opponent and added, “If you can have Joe Klein, the chancellor of the New York City education department, responsible for that massive district, that school district of New York City, and we have nine districts, I believe, servicing Putnam County, we can’t go on like that.”

Similarly, town supervisors Robert Tendy of Putnam Valley, Michael Griffin of Patterson, Michael Rights of Southeast, and Kenneth Schmitt of Carmel all said school taxes are one of the biggest problems facing Putnam.

“I think funding schools through property taxes is wrong,” said Philipstown supervisor Richard Shea. “It just seems that in this state, for some reason, school taxes are much higher than they are in other states. Why that is, I don’t know. But the other side of the coin is that it costs money to educate students.”

In addition, Shea said that every tax dollar needs to be looked at—not just the biggest portion of the bill.

But Michael Kaplowtiz, Democratic candidate for the 40th district state senate seat, said his concern is teacher benefits. “The pension and heathcare benefits that attend to the salaries and the cumulative effect of the unfunded mandates that require that schools do certain things without the dollars to make them happen,” are the biggest problem, Kaplowitz said. He added that property tax can no longer be the sole basis for school tax assessment.

Kaplowitz held a press conference on Tuesday regarding his plan to “lower the county property tax burden by 35 percent,” with a focus on cutting school taxes.

The Haldane School District’s 2010-2010 budget is $21,462,350, showing a $773,623 increase from the previous year—of these funds, $10,577,373.00 are designated to contract salaries.

Haldane Superintendant Dr. Mark Villanti acknowledged that “this is a tough season for anyone to defend taxes except from the point of view that your taxes pay for your public schools and public schools are the backbone of the country— they are and they always will be,” he said.

Villanti said the concern over school taxes in Putnam isn’t something that happened overnight. “Historically if you look at teacher salaries … in the ‘70s there was a feeling that teachers were being underpaid and there were programs that really helped raise the salary levels for teachers. I think we’ve really come to a point in the last few years where I think that what’s disturbed some people in the public is the rate of increase.”

Regarding the teacher pay scale, based primarily on seniority, Villanti said he doesn’t think change will come to the way teachers negotiate their collective bargaining agreements. “Step increases are built in most school districts as collective bargain agreements. It’s very difficult to reverse years of bargaining … their [teachers] profession is different from other professions. It’s not just at local districts.”

In a countywide survey conducted by Kieran Mahoney on behalf of the PCN&R of 300 registered voters, 70.7 percent of Putnam residents said they are unwilling to pay higher school taxes. At the same time, 72 percent of those polled had a positive view of Putnam schools; still, only 23.7 percent deemed the schools “excellent” and 60 percent said that major reforms are needed. The margin of error was +/- 5.65 percent.

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