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Getting Schooled

By Tina Traster

February 21, 2008 -- My good friend Lisa recently moved to Wisconsin. Her husband was offered an 11 percent increase in salary, but the idea of property-tax relief is what really enticed them to relocate from New York to a small town in the midst of cornfields.

In 2003, Lisa and her husband paid $365,000 for their three-bedroom raised Ranch in Nyack. With school property taxes rising every year, their $11,000 yearly tax burden prevented them from saving for their children's education. To their dismay, the house fetched less than $450,000 when they put it up for sale last December - nearly $100,000 less than what they thought it was worth a year earlier.

What Lisa told me (and I've heard from others) is that high taxes sabotage the sale of a house in the middle price range. Statewide, school taxes - which make up two-thirds of property taxes - have soared on average 7.3 percent per year over the past five years. Gov. Eliot Spitzer has proposed a cap on school taxes for 2008/2009 (New Jersey recently adopted such a cap). It's about time.

For several years, Nyack's voters have allowed the school district easy budget victories and annual tax hikes. I got my first whiff of our district's spending habits last May. Our daughter was starting kindergarten in September, and a neighbor invited us to a "meet the school board candidates" cocktail party. The wine flowed, cheese and fruit plates were passed around, and somewhere in a far corner of the room was a stack of budgets.

My husband and I flipped through the documents. In addition to all the so-called mandated increases for teachers' and administrators' salaries and benefits, the 6 percent increase in our taxes would pay for a competitive cheerleading instructor, two assistant varsity lacrosse coaches and four marching-band movement instructors. Also on the budget: a full-time bilingual psychologist, a part-time social worker and a part-time teacher for virtual high-school classes.

The May budget and school board elections were days away. We knew we would vote against it, but it was too late to organize to oppose the increase.

In September, I wrote the check for my property taxes. A couple weeks later, I found a notice stuffed in my daughter's backpack that said the district wanted voters to shell out $16.5 million for school improvements, including repairs to the windows and wiring. And there was more: The district also had its hand out for $4 million for three artificial-turf fields, press boxes and night lighting. I had no idea that we needed to be ESPN-ready here in our 3,000-student district.

The vote on this bond referendum was set for Dec. 11, two months down the road. This time we were ready for a fight.

We got hold of the tax rolls from the County Board of Elections and cold-called hundreds of people over age 60. Not surprisingly, few knew about the bond, and nearly everyone went ballistic when they heard about the spending proposal.

We canvassed the neighborhood with flyers. We pooled money with a few other advocates and ran an ad in the local newspaper. Did you know, we wrote, "that an audit last year by the State Education Department admonished the district for awarding no-bid contracts for janitorial, security and legal services?"

On Dec. 11, more than 2,000 voters - an unprecedented number - showed up, and the bond was soundly defeated (62 percent of voters were against it).

As the board gears up to present its next spending plan, I'm hoping prospective school-board candidates will step forward and address questionable spending. I plan to attend meetings and keep close tabs on the process. Anyone who feels battered by taxes has to get involved at the early stages, when plans such as press boxes and turf fields are hatched.

That's the time to make noise, to let neighbors know that certain luxuries might not be prudent at a time when homeowners are pressed by a struggling economy as well as rising fuel prices, health-insurance premiums and college tuition.

In the meantime, I'll squirrel away extra cash just in case next September's property-tax bill socks us with another 6 percent increase. Or I can start scouting for a farmhouse in Wisconsin.

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