We'll see what the state Senate and Assembly do, but the way things are going with budgeting and talk of a tax levy cap, it seems inevitable that some big cuts are coming down the pike for schools.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo would cut school district aid by $1.5 billion overall and has suggested four ways every school board can make up for these cuts:
-Cut administrators' pay.
-Require employees to make the same health insurance contributions that other state employees make.
-Dip into reserves, including unspent federal funds.
The first three will probably be hard for local boards to achieve through negotiations, but they're fair - the kind of thing a typical private employer would do in a financial crisis even a fraction as bad as New York state's.
The governor's last recommendation, however, is not fair. The Tri-Lakes school districts and many others simply don't have the big reserves Gov. Cuomo is talking about. Sure, some Long Island districts have enough stashed away to last them 30 or even 50 years if the state froze aid at Gov. Cuomo's proposed levels, but that's apparently because they've flaunted the state law that caps every school district's fund balance at 4 percent of its budget. The Tri-Lakes districts have properly used most of those reserves to keep property taxes as low as possible. It's not fair for the governor to punish them for doing the right thing and forgive those that didn't.
Perhaps the state should specifically withhold all aid from school districts that have more than a certain percentage of their budgets in reserve, until all districts are in line. That would free up more aid for districts like Tupper Lake, which followed the rules and really needs the aid. The state blasted it last year, and the governor would hammer it again this year.
Meanwhile, local and state officials are trying to reduce school spending in ways that will hurt education quality the least. Administrators' high salaries and benefits are one example of fat that could be trimmed. Merging or sharing between tiny neighboring school districts is another good thing to look at. What else?
We asked Robert Lowry Jr., deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents, and he agreed that New York spends more on schools than other states. He said that when he talks to superintendents, they suggest the following ways to save money:
-Relax mandates for special education. New York has a more expensive special-ed system than other states.
-Reform the the Triborough Amendment to the Taylor Law, which requires that when there is no contract between a union and a state employer, the terms of the last contract apply until a new contract is reached. If the last contract gave 4 percent annual raises, union members would keep getting those raises until there's a new contract - giving them little incentive to come to the table and bargain with a government body that just can't afford that kind of compensation anymore.
-Find some savings in employee health insurance, perhaps by forming one health plan for all school employees and thereby leveraging a better rate.
These, too, are good suggestions.
Meanwhile, some local teachers' unions last year agreed to give back some of their contractual raises or pay more for their health insurance to reduce property tax hikes. The tough reality is that unions probably will have to give more this year unless they want to see schools gutted by layoffs.
To everything there is a season, and now is a time to reduce the cost of government. Unlike Wisconsin, in New York let's do it together - public workers and administrators, taxpayers and politicians - to make sure it's done as wisely as it can be.