EDITORIAL from 3/22/14: All school districts will face budget shortfall eventually
Whether you live in Lake George, Bolton Landing, Queensbury, Whitehall, Greenwich, Corinth or any of two dozen other school districts around the region, trouble is coming.
We found out this week it is already at the door in Glens Falls.
The past five years have been hard on schools. For a long time, schools sailed along with taxpayers approving healthy budget increases year after year. The past five years could be seen as a long overdue correction that reined in spending and tapped the brakes on taxes.
We’ve seen schools respond by shedding fat, becoming more efficient and doing everything possible to maintain the quality of education in which they take so much pride.
But the situation in Glens Falls brings home the reality of what we have been saying for some time: This is not a local problem, this is an Albany problem the Legislature and governor refuse to address.
Glens Falls school officials suggested one scenario this week that not only cut to the bone, it lopped off a couple of limbs.
In an effort to close a $3.7 million budget gap and stay under the 2 percent tax cap, Glens Falls started cutting and cutting and cutting some more. Here are some of the suggestions:
— Eliminate five teaching aides, three building and grounds positions and two office employees.
— Eliminate stipends for teachers who teach an extra sixth period and cut stipends for advising clubs by 50 percent.
— Reduce transportation for field trips, athletics and conferences.
— Increase class sizes, eliminate many electives and reduce extracurricular activities.
— Scrap plans to join the Early College High School program and eliminate fifth and sixth-grade foreign languages.
— Eliminate boys and girls varsity tennis, varsity cheerleading, freshmen boys basketball and intramural sports.
— Eliminate funding for participation in the BOCES alternative education program, reduce special classes for fifth-graders and fifth-through-eighth-grade chorus and band.
— Eliminate all modified sports and student clubs.
But the worst part is, after all those suggested cuts, Glens Falls is still $1 million short.
This is a parent’s worst nightmare.
It has become clear to almost everyone but the Legislature in Albany that schools will not be able to cut their way out of this crisis.
The Legislature is in the stretch run of negotiations regarding the state budget. Late in the week, there was talk it would come up with another $240 million in state aid for schools. There was also some talk about restoring some of the monies lost from the gap eliminate adjustment.
These are Band Aids for amputations.
What the Legislature refuses to do is address two root causes of the problem: funding state pensions and the gap elimination adjustment.
School contributions toward pensions continue to skyrocket and it is expected to get worse. In the 2002-03 school year, school districts contributed 0.36 percent of an employee’s salary toward pensions. In 2013-14, it was more than 15.5 percent of an employee’s salary and expected to go higher.
The Legislature won’t even address that problem because it does not have the political will. The majority won’t stand up to state unions.
So our schools suffer.
Former Gov. David Paterson robbed schools of the gap elimination adjustment to balance the state budget. Now that the state has a surplus again, the majority in the Legislature is still reluctant to put the money back. And while most local schools like Glens Falls are struggling to survive, Albany politicians are adding money for prekindergarten programs and possibly more money for charter schools.
So our schools suffer.
The Legislature passed a 2 percent tax cap to hold our taxes in place. But without fixing one or both of the other two problems, the tax cap just exacerbates the problem.
For several years, we have been writing this day was coming. It arrived in Glens Falls. Other school districts will get there shortly.
It makes us wonder how many young families might contemplate moving from the district.
It makes us wonder how many young families would even consider moving into the district.
It makes us wonder how much higher taxes can go for residents.
Several school districts are lobbying residents to send letters and emails to Sen. Betty Little, Sen. Kathleen Marchione and Rep. Dan Stec that local schools need help. Queensbury has sent out emails and made automated calls to residents. Glens Falls has included information on its website, but it is doubtful that even a grass-roots campaign will make much of a difference because of the politics.
Our local legislators are on board. They know the problem. It is the legislators from downstate who are the problem. That means no matter how much of a ruckus local citizens make, no matter how loud they yell, there may be nothing they can do to help local schools beyond accepting a big tax hike.
Local editorials represent the opinion of the Post-Star editorial board, which consists of Publisher Rick Emanuel, Editor Ken Tingley, Projects Editor Will Doolittle and citizen representative Karen Stites.