School budgets in wake of state budget

The state budget that state lawmakers approved earlier this week wasn’t entirely to our liking. It’s a tax-break bonanza for big business and those who inherit huge estates, and schools will once again have their state aid raided through the Gap Elimination Adjustment, although a little bit less than expected. Plus, it includes a convoluted property tax “freeze” that’s bound to be a can of worms. Nevertheless, it’s done, and now we have to live with it.

Next up are school district budgets, and in the local perspective, they’re an even bigger deal. They more directly affect our tax dollars, our families and people we know.

Many of those people we know in Saranac Lake schools are poised to lose their jobs – 18 of them, a number reduced from 25 after the state budget restored $150,000 in aid. Eight teachers and 10 teaching assistants are on the chopping block.

We’re not yet sure what the Tupper Lake and Lake Placid school budgets will look like; we hope they’re not this bad.

With 40 full-time-equivalent positions cut in the last five years and two schools closed, the Saranac Lake Central School District long ago passed right-sizing its faculty and staff for a smaller enrollment. What’s being cut now is the flesh and bone of a basic education. Saranac Lake schools have long been rated among the highest-scoring districts in the North Country on state tests, but now they are being made mediocre, trending toward poor.

Why? We can primarily blame the state, and the Enterprise has done so sharply, but the governor and Legislature haven’t heeded that cry. Given those circumstances, every New York school community has to decide what it’s going to do.

What many have been doing, cutting faculty, will hurt kids more than any other option. Giving students less academic attention will have big ripples on thousands of people’s futures and the prospects of each community’s economy and culture.

The alternatives are not pretty, either, but they need to be explored as long as the state keeps being a jerk by raiding school aid.

We respect district officials’ hard, painful work on budgets, but we think the reason they keep laying off teachers year after year is that that’s the quickest, easiest way out. It’s short-term thinking, repeated annually.

School boards that find themselves slipping into this pattern would do well to develop, in cooperation with their community members, a more long-term vision for sustainability in today’s Empire State.

It’s going to be painful any way you slice it, but there are more strategic ways to cut that would minimize damage to the quality of the education – which is the point, after all.

Let’s envision a less expensive school system that still does a top-tier job of preparing kids. It could have significantly lower administrative pay. (Could one get an excellent superintendent for $80,000 a year? We think so, and that would save a teacher right there.) It could avoid buying technology that’s not necessary or money-saving. It could require sports coaches to be volunteers. It could charge more in equipment fees for extracurricular activities, including sports. It could involve mergers between neighboring districts, trying to maintain existing schools but combining district offices, busing, purchasing and other functions. It could also include less pay and benefits to faculty and staff, which hopefully will result from future contract negotiations.

We know these things are not desirable. We don’t wish them, either, but it is worse for students if Saranac Lake instead continues lay off 10 instructors a year, indefinitely. (If the proposed budget passed, they’ll have cut nearly 60 in the last six years.) We are faced with a choice of evils, and we at the Enterprise see teacher numbers as a priority.

Realistically, we are not sure the long-term cuts we just suggested would save as much money as layoffs would. If not, districts would still be left with shortfalls that would have to come from somewhere: taxes, layoffs, contract renegotiations, increased state aid or a combination of these.

In that case, with more strategic cuts to make schools more sustainable in the long term and if the state is still being a pain in the neck, we think most local residents would be more likely to support a larger property tax increase to cover the difference.

Ultimately, taxpayers have to pay for the education they want, but local property taxes are inherently less fair than state income and sales taxes, which are more based on ability to pay. Also, New York’s property taxes are already among the nation’s highest.

Our schools are in a tight spot. There’s no single, local way out – not tax hikes and definitely not annual rounds of layoffs. The state is constitutionally required to pay for a basic education for all New Yorkers, but until it actually does that, locals need to work out a more comprehensive approach to cutting that spreads the pain away from our kids as much as possible.