Local school budgets will do for now

The four school districts the Enterprise covers have produced 2013-14 budgets that are very different, but alike in some key ways, too: Hard work went into them as well as understanding of what the public wants and what schools need.

We think none of them deserves to be rejected, but voters will have to decide for themselves on May 21.

If a local board had passed a budget that was out of touch with its community, it might have earned a “no.” These are not that way. We think local school board members know what’s up this time around.

That doesn’t mean they’ll please everyone. Tupper Lake’s tentative budget, for instance, would raise taxes more than 8 percent and dip deeply into reserves. School leaders know that risks upsetting their perfect record of getting budgets passed since, because it exceeds the tax cap, they’ll need 60 percent approval instead of 50 percent. But given their grim alternatives, they worked the numbers down as far as they felt they could. They are asking the community to pay more toward its schools, which are essential.

Tupper Lake, which relies on the state for a majority of its school revenue, and many other upstate districts are being pulled into a whirlpool in which many fear they will drain their reserves and fall underwater in the next few years.

The main source of the suction is Albany. Gov. Andrew Cuomo is trying to starve out small school districts to encourage consolidation – he’s said so – but people aren’t yet ready to knuckle under and give up their hometown districts. Consolidation could be a good option, but so far there’s no good, fair long-term plan out there.

Plus, Albany isn’t doing its part. Schools’ biggest annual cost increases are in things like employee pension payments, which the state requires. Local governments have to give their full-timers state benefits and have little control over their cost.

When the governor and state Legislature brought in the tax cap, they promised mandate relief. They failed miserably in that promise. We and many others said at the time that without mandate relief, the tax cap wouldn’t work, and it doesn’t. The same problems are happening in New York’s cities and counties, too.

Some, like the Lake Placid and Keene school districts, have tax bases big enough to keep them going for now with minimal tax increases, percentage-wise. Local property taxes pay roughly 85 percent of their costs. But it isn’t easy; it has required excellent management, listening and leadership. Keene Central School was fortunately able to rely on semi-retired superintendent Cynthia Ford Johnston again to manage its budget. Lake Placid’s school board and administration threw everything they had at this year’s budget and did fine work, going a long way toward regaining public trust after a rough couple of years.

In the middle is the Saranac Lake Central School District, which relies more on state aid but gets most of its revenue locally. Saranac Lake has been very wary of tax increases and has made harsh cuts every year lately, although not in administration – until this year, when it cut a principal’s job. That was sad but probably reflects the will of the people – not that they want the cut but that they’d rather have it there than elsewhere.

It’s great that the public has the power to vote on annual school budgets, but there’s such a weak range of options, they can’t send much of a message. There are all kinds of things one wants to tell one’s elected and hired officials about budget priorities that one can’t in these annual elections.

Oh, well. The choice comes down to this: Accept the proposed budget, or accept a contingency budget. Only in Tupper Lake would a contingency budget be substantially leaner, and there voters must face the question: How much would such a budget hurt education?