Separate and Unequal

April 27, 2014

 

Westchester County in New York State seems to attract a great deal of attention in the media.

 

Not long ago, we learned from a posting on Zillow that property owners in Westchester County pay more in property taxes than the typical resident of any other major American county. The average property tax bill for a single family home in Westchester County comes to $14,829 a year (vs. the U.S. median of about $2,800).

 

There are a number of reasons why property taxes in Westchester County NY are the highest in the nation, but the primary reason is property taxes levied to support public schools.

In a county with a population of just under a million residents, Westchester County taxpayers are supporting some 47 completely autonomous public school districts!

 

Very recently, Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino made headlines because he continues to battle the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) over compliance with a consent decree approved in 2009 which requires Westchester County to take an active and affirmative role in desegregating local villages and towns in the county which have miniscule populations of African American and Hispanic residents.

 

Some commentators have applauded Astorino for defying the federal government under the guise that, “(Astorino) is doing his job by protecting the neighborhoods of those who worked very hard to live where they live!”

 

I’m fine with the notion that people ought to be able to live where they want to live.

 

However, because New York State allows and encourages public school districts to form around — and to exclusively serve residents of — villages, towns and cities, the impact of this ‘home rule’ approach to public education has created de facto segregation which has produced more egregious and dangerous consequences than the issues debated in the Brown vs. Board of Education case which was decided in 1954 – 60 years ago!

 

We can clearly witness that “Separate and Unequal” has become the standard in Westchester County.

 

It becomes very clear from reviewing NYS Education Department statistics that economic and racial segregation in housing translates directly to school inequality and results in disparate student outcomes.

 

The Village of Scarsdale is one of the communities identified in the Housing Agreement (consent decree) as racially segregated, and thus a priority area for new units of fair and affordable housing.

 

A report released in late April from US News and World Report reveals that Scarsdale High School was ranked among the very best high schools in Westchester County; in New York State; and across our nation.

 

In Scarsdale, no students at the High School receive subsidized meals, and just 9% of students are Black or Hispanic. About 8% of Scarsdale students have been classified with a disability, and 68% of those students spend 80% or more of their school time in regular classroom settings. Most recent total per-pupil spending across the Scarsdale schools was $27,219, with $17,450 focused on general education students.

 

Meanwhile, just 5 miles south of Scarsdale High School is Mount Vernon High School, where 70% of students receive subsidized meals, and where 95% of students are Black or Hispanic.

 

About 16% of Mount Vernon Students have been classified with a disability, and just 48% of those students spend 80% or more of their school time in regular classroom settings.

 

Most recent total per-pupil spending across the Mount Vernon public schools was $23,560, with just $11,641 centered on general education students.

 

The real test may be in graduation rates.  For the class of 2012, 95% of Scarsdale seniors graduated with Regents diplomas; at Mount Vernon High School, just 52% of seniors graduated with a Regents diploma.

 

The attitudes and actions of public officials should set a positive example for all people, affirming that our elected leadership is fair, honest and forward thinking.

 

There really is no place in our current society for personal private agendas – working against the general public good – on the part of our elected officials.

 

Municipal and school district consolidation seems to be the only rational resolution — why is this solution so difficult to discuss and resolve?

 

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I learned today from an article published in The Journal News that Westchester County has again refused to come into compliance with federal anti-discrimination law and sign a statement to affirmatively further fair housing throughout the county.

The official statement looks something like this: “… (Westchester) county is not going to turn over control of the local zoning of its six cities, 19 towns and 20 villages to bureaucrats in Washington for $5 million in grants.”

This is pure incendiary nonsense, really not different than shouting Fire in a crowded movie theater.

Recalcitrance on the part of the executive branch of Westchester County government will cost villages and towns $5.2 million in community development grants, which had been awarded in 2012 but have been withheld along with all the other rounds of funding since 2011. More than $7 million in grants from 2011 were lost in a similar fashion in 2013.

We elect our public sector leaders to make balanced decisions which are in the best interests of all current and future residents. There really is no place in the American governance process for elected officials to pursue their own personal agenda(s) at the expense of the public good.

Through his continued defiance of the terms of a 2009 agreement between Westchester County and HUD, Mr. Astorino has proven beyond a shadow of doubt that he is unable and/or unwilling to pursue the actions which are in the best long-term interests of the people of Westchester County.

“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.  The Great OZ Has Spoken!”

It’s time, Mr. Astorino.  Time for you to resign from your current elected position to pursue your private agenda on your own time and on your own dime.

I live in Westchester County, NY – the place they say has the highest property tax burden in the U.S.

Our Governor – Andrew Cuomo – also comes from Westchester County — and he has made it his mission to support effective ways to reduce and/or eliminate the government waste which necessitates the high property taxes we pay.

The incredible inefficiency of having 400+ independent government entities operating within Westchester County certainly is a primary culprit for the dubious honor of being named the highest taxed county in the U.S.

The largest portion of property taxes paid is attributable to funding public schools — 41 regular school districts in a county with less than 1 Million in total population.

Each of these districts is ‘self contained’ in that they have their own administration, buildings, and all of the fixed cost infrastructure which gets paid for whether there 275 students served (Pocantico Hills at an average per-pupil cost of $42,000) or 25,000 students (Yonkers at an average per-pupil cost of $19,600).

Contrast this to Montgomery County, Maryland — about the same physical size as Westchester, and with a very diverse population of just under 1 Million, demographically quite similar.

Montgomery County has just one school district which educates all of the 150,000 public school students in the county at an average per-pupil cost of $15,421.

Just about every year, Maryland Public Schools are ranked at the top in the nation. http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/maryland-schools-insider/post/maryland-schools-ranked-number-one–again/2012/01/11/gIQA7NEqrP_blog.html

While Montgomery County — perhaps due to its ethnic, racial and economic diversity — is not number one in the state, it seems to consistently score in the top 10, and compares very favorably against the composite Westchester score.

It’s really time for the taxpayers in NYS to put aside the political rhetoric and to find a way to reduce overall costs, whether through actual mergers and consolidations, or through consolidation of services which are not directly related to the classroom.

We can do better, and we must!