Heading into the 1961-1962 school year, there were still 20 Nassau County school districts that did not have their own superintendent of schools. These districts enrolled 74,000 students. In the non-superintendent districts, there was a local principal-in-chief (usually called “district principal”) who met with the school board and provided daily supervision of the staff and pupils. However, many big decisions involving personnel, planning and dealing with the State Education Department were left to the shared “district superintendent,” head of the BOCES supervisory district. Nassau had a northern district and a southern district.
In 1961, the longtime district superintendent for the northern half of the county announced that he was retiring. Within a few years, all but a handful of districts had appointed their own superintendent. “A question of personality,” said one state education official. Districts had invested lots of money in their new schools and they wanted to choose their top executive and state advocate.
Districts certainly can share some management positions. So can most special service districts and most municipalities which all perform similar functions with similar equipment. In this sense, Governor Cuomo’s program requires county governments to work with towns and villages to develop plans to merge or combine services. The proposals are scheduled for voter referenda this fall.
Like the governor’s other property tax “reform” plans, this one is based on threats and blackmail. Your local officials will do this, or we will turn voters against them by denying some benefit, like a check in the mail or increased aid.
This plan will again not fix anything. There are already “shared services” agreements in many counties. It helps. It’s good government. Our finance problems go deeper.
If the state had assumed some of the major program costs, the “Tax Cap” could have actually slashed reliance on the archaic, unfair property tax. There could have been a meaningful shift from property taxes to taxes based on income and the ability to pay. The only reason those caps haven’t caused a mass meltdown already is this unprecedented period of near-zero inflation, near-zero interest rates and unexpectedly low energy costs. Those conditions are not permanent.
District and municipal consolidations can save money, but generally it doesn’t last long. As costs start to climb, the property tax rolls still can’t respond and you eventually end up back where you were. Nassau County had over 100 school closings during the 1970s; they saved costs for about three years. The raw number of districts isn’t the key; we’re paying the wrong kind of taxes.
Let’s stop pretending a slightly-modified colonial system of government and public finance will best respond to the needs of the 21st century. But the political parties behave as if nothing has changed.
Consider that in 1973, when the Coliseum was new, Nassau County had seven candidates for county executive. Four were taken seriously as contenders, but all seven had something to say, showed up to the debates, spoke to the press. They included a Socialist Workers candidate on the left, Courage Party (George Wallace) candidate on the right and a well-financed independent businessman pushing housing and modern planning. Couldn’t we use some more options today?
The 1973 Democratic county ticket and all candidates for town and city supervisor endorsed a platform to merge town functions with the county government and ban campaign contributions from public employees.
Meanwhile, this recent local headline shows today’s Nassau Dems at about their most proactive: “Democrats Respond to Call for Mangano’s Resignation.” Quite a contrast.
Turnout in 1973: A disappointing 464,000. Turnout in 2013: A ridiculous 276,000. Voters are owed real ideas for the future.
Michael Miller has worked in state and local government. The views expressed are not necessarily those of the publisher or Anton Media Group.