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Even a Wealthy Suburb Faces Pressure to Curb School Taxes

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, increase 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, about 15 miles north of Midtown Manhattan, are in the six and seven figures, ranking the village among the wealthiest enclaves in America. But even an additional $100 to $200 tacked on, in a village where the typical homeowner already pays $43,000 in annual property taxes, 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 teacher compensation— 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.”

So far, he argued, Dr. Quattrone and the school board have not done so. Instead, they have chosen “soft targets.” One hour a week of Spanish instruction to grade-school students, for example, was eliminated last year. Mr. Pulkkinen instead would attack “structural” expenses like tenure, the accumulation of unused sick days and the rising amount the school board pays for pensions and health insurance.

The cost of health insurance and pensions for teachers and other school employees is $6 million, or nearly 14 percent of the $43 million budget, up from $2.1 million in 2000-1, or 9 percent of that budget. The pension portion alone — a mandatory payment to the New York State pension fund — is projected to be $3 million in the coming school year, or 7 percent of the proposed school budget. Teachers and other village employees, nearly all of them unionized, pay only a small amount of this cost. Property tax revenue covers almost the entire outlay, and this at a moment when the pension will have risen by nearly 25 percent in the three years through June, according to the superintendent’s office.

That increase — and the prospect of bigger ones to come — played a role in the school board’s decision to lay off all 17 custodians last year. Janitorial services were outsourced, eliminating the future pension cost burden.

“We would be abdicating our responsibility,” Mr. Pulkkinen said, approving of the decision to outsource janitorial services, “if we failed to leave behind a stable, solvent and sustainable framework for the future.”

Rising Taxes

The $43,000 property tax levied by the village on a typical Bronxville home is up 34 percent in the last five years, although the increase was negligible in the last two years as the mayor, the village trustees and school board members responded to their constituents’ concerns.

“I don’t think we have seen an antitax uprising, but holding down property taxes is certainly spoken about a lot,” said Dr. James D. Hudson, the 54-year-old school board president, a dentist with two children in the high school. He is often buttonholed on the subject, he said, at cocktail and dinner parties or while shopping.

“Their concern is that their taxes will continue to spiral up if we continue to do business as usual,” said Dr. Hudson. “If you will, we are looking to develop a lean, mean education machine.”

Lean and mean were rarely invoked in the past as a goal for the wealthiest suburbs. Now that talk is commonplace. In Bronxville, 86 percent of the typical $43,000 property tax levied by the village goes to the school system, particularly to educate the growing grade school population. For the parents of these children — moving here in many cases from New York City — $43,000 is less than they would spend to put two or three children in a private school.

Adding to the pressure, younger couples, including the Pulkkinens, are buying their homes from empty-nesters, who often sell to escape the rising tax burden. Mary C. Marvin, the mayor, says this exodus is accelerating.

In a village covering one square mile, with a static population of 6,400 people, the elderly once constituted nearly 20 percent, but that proportion is steadily dropping. Most important, these empty-nesters paid substantial property taxes without swelling the school population.

“You want the taxes to be something these older people can pay,” the mayor said, “because when they sell, they sell to families with children, and the children cost more to educate than the taxes their parents pay.”

Rising Resistance, Rising Wages

Rising Resistance

That reasoning resonates with David A. McBride, 75, who for 40 years has lived in a white colonial mansion with an imposing front entrance. He and his wife, Cheryne, a chorale singer, were high school sweethearts in western Oklahoma. As his career advanced — he earned a Harvard M.B.A., rose to executive vice president at Dun & Bradstreet and is still involved in technology start-ups — the McBrides gravitated to New York and Bronxville, where they raised their only child, David Alan McBride 2d. He is now an executive working in China, married and raising David Alan McBride 3d, who is 4.

The eldest McBride is a former village trustee, a former governor of the local hospital and an elder in the Reformed Church. All this holds the couple in Bronxville. But their property taxes of $50,000 a year just to the village, and $10,000 more to the broader township, concern them.

“The tax burden is significant enough,” Mr. McBride said, “that if it took a jump in the next couple of years, I would probably feel forced to move.”

He doesn’t fault Mayor Marvin or Dr. Quattrone who, in his view, have managed costs well. Instead, like Mr. Pulkkinen, Mr. McBride directs his ire at teacher compensation and at the teachers’ union, the Bronxville Teachers’ Association.

Until the teachers agreed to a partial wage freeze for the current school year, their pay had been rising at 3 to 3.5 percent a year. A typical teacher with a master’s degree and 30 years of service makes nearly $118,000 today. That teacher is entitled to retire with an $80,000 state pension, or 67.5 percent of his or her final salary.

“My income in retirement is pretty fixed,” Mr. McBride said, “and there comes a time when you have to say, ‘Whoa, whoa.’ ” Mr. McBride, who describes himself as “antispend, not antitax,” is reluctant to support the superintendent’s proposal to add two elementary school teachers without offsetting the cost.

“We outsourced the custodians last year and the teachers initially rebelled; that to me was inexcusable,” he said. “In private industry it could not have happened. When the boss says, ‘I have to have X amount of savings out of your division,’ you don’t say no.”

Rising Wages

Ms. Meade and her P.T.A. were reluctant at first to support the decision to jettison the custodians. “Our concern as parents was the well-being of our children,” she said. “But if the board didn’t outsource the custodians, where would they have found comparable savings in the budget? It would have meant a lot of program reductions. My own concern was that lab time would have been cut. My daughter is taking physics, and lab time is important to me.”

Her husband earns a salary in the low- to mid-six figures, and she was earning that much as a senior vice president at GE Capital until she was let go in 2008. By then, they had moved from a seven-bedroom home to a smaller house, also in Bronxville, partly to simplify their lives, and Ms. Meade, now 48, soon landed a job as administrator of a nonprofit organization, the Cancer Support Team, at a lower five-figure salary.

“You are looking at a community of people who saw their property taxes go up for years, and now their incomes aren’t going up,” she said. “The board is trying to budget with this in mind while still fielding a ‘sustainable model of excellence.’ I believe that is the phrase they use.”

Listening to Dr. Quattrone make his budget proposal, she was inclined to go along with his plan to add the two grade-school teachers and preserve or bring back other enhancements, but the tax levy for the 2011-12 school year would then rise 3.29 percent. The superintendent offered three lower-cost alternatives, with the least expensive requiring a nearly 1 percent property tax increase.

“The key is teacher wages,” Dr. Quattrone said. “We can sustain our school programs if raises for the teachers come in at 2 percent a year. If the average settlement is higher, that will force cutbacks.”

The 150 teachers are working without a contract. Negotiations to replace the old contract, which expired last June, are at an impasse. The board offered annual wage increases of less than 2 percent. Rather than lock in such a small increase, the teachers agreed to work through the current school year at the existing wage structure.

“The resistance to tax increases is showing up in our labor negotiations,” said David Katz, a social studies teacher and the president of the Bronxville Teachers’ Association. “Everyone is caught in this squeeze.”

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