martes, 8 de marzo de 2011

Even in Wealthy Town, Schools Feel Pinch

 BRONXVILLE, N.Y. — This wealthy New York suburb prides itself on its public schools. Class sizes are small. Students can choose from an array of subjects not offered everywhere. Teacher pay ranks among the nation’s highest. And voters long approved high real estate taxes to pay for it all.  But even here — as in other affluent enclaves — corners are being cut, bringing home the wrenching debate that has caused turmoil in so many other communities. What some really fear is that the cuts will continue. “You hear people say they want Mandarin taught in the sixth grade or they want smaller class size or some other enhancement,” said Julie Meade, president of the Parent Teacher Association and mother of two school-age children. “But they don’t talk about raising taxes to pay for what they advocate. I haven’t heard anyone say raise taxes to pay for quality.”

Ms. Meade and others in her P.T.A. are beginning to suggest that austerity may be going too far, particularly in the matter of class size, which has crept up in kindergarten through fifth grade to an average of 22 from 19.9 in 2006-7, the last full school year before the recession. While 22 is hardly overcrowding by the standards of most American school districts, it does push the envelope in the wealthiest suburbs.

The traditional solution — add a class, hire another teacher, jack up the tax levy to cover the cost — is frowned on these days. Keeping a lid on property taxes has become an overriding goal, even in plush suburbs like this one.

Responding to that pressure and also to the desire of the P.T.A. to hold down class size, Bronxville’s school superintendent, David Quattrone, is proposing to add two teachers in the fall, enough to reduce class size to 20, and to raise property taxes, a little, to pay for it.

Listening to the superintendent present his proposal at a public hearing, Ms. Meade wondered whether raising taxes, even slightly, would fly with voters, particularly with both political parties embracing deficit reduction for the country as a whole, and Republican majorities in Wisconsin and some other states demanding givebacks from public employees.

Across the country, elected officials in privileged communities are caught between a fervor to hold down taxes and a fervor to maintain good schools, well-paved streets, an ample police force, generous library hours and other premium public services that set a community like Bronxville apart. These officials have by and large decided to cut costs as unobtrusively as possible.

The main cuts have been in personnel — school staff, police officers, public works employees, city hall workers, librarians — a total of 35 in Bronxville. The cuts are mostly through attrition, although sometimes there are layoffs. And rarely, in affluent towns, are so many employees cut that the reduction shows up in fewer garbage collections (twice a week is the standard), or in slower response time to 911 calls or a delay in snow clearing.

Most family incomes in Bronxville are in the six and seven figures, ranking the village among the wealthiest enclaves in America. But even an additional $100 to $200 tacked onto property tax bills has met enough resistance to make town officials think twice.

Some residents argue that the town should be more businesslike, cutting other costs to offset the outlay for smaller classes. Peter P. Pulkkinen is one. A 40-year-old investment banker, he and his wife, Sarah, moved here in 2004 from the Upper East Side and their two oldest children are now in the first and third grades. He wants small classes for them. But rather than raise taxes, he would restrict the compensation of existing teachers — particularly their benefits.

Displaying a sheaf of charts and projections that he and a friend prepared for a school board meeting, Mr. Pulkkinen said in an interview that if property taxes continued to rise in Bronxville at roughly the trajectory of the last decade, they would double by 2020 — and by 46 percent in the unlikely event the “austerity budgets” of the last two years continued through the decade. “I think it is a false paradigm to have to choose between radically diminished services or exponentially higher taxes,” he said, “without first addressing the structural issue of teacher compensation.”

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