Our area's school budgets were all passed in Tuesday's election, which is good, but we hope it doesn't make local school officials overconfident.
The New York State School Boards Association reports that 96.4 percent of the state's 675 school budgets were approved Tuesday. That makes sense since officials in 92.8 percent of the districts had cut their budgets to within the new property tax cap, meaning a rejection and reversion to a contingency budget would make relatively little difference. Of those budgets under the cap, 99.2 percent passed. (All those percentages come from NYSSBA, by the way.)
We're concerned, however, about NYSSBA Executive Director Tim Kremer's interpretation of these results as a "ringing endorsement by voters of their public schools.
"Voters recognized that school leaders did everything they could to comply with the spirit and intent of the property tax levy cap," Mr. Kremer added. "They were responsive to their communities."
Not necessarily. There are plenty of districts where the budget was passed but deep challenges remain about the officials' responsiveness.
These elections should not be viewed as general votes of confidence, as Mr. Kremer spins them. The only thing this year's results show is that most voters think their school budgets are better than contingency budgets, which likely would be tighter.
Fact is, voters are given such a weak range of options in these annual school budget votes that they can't send much of a message at all.
It's great that the public has the power to vote on school budgets (why not county and municipal budgets as well?), but there are all kinds of things one wants to tell one's elected and hired officials about budget priorities that one can't in the voting booth.
For example, many in the Saranac Lake Central School District have written letters to this paper, signed petitions and spoken out at school board meetings asking the board not to cut things like art, music and foreign language teachers, a substance-abuse prevention program or the indoor track team. Some have suggested cutting administration instead, which will remain undiminished as the district enters its fourth consecutive year of double-digit faculty cuts. But these cries were moot. The board had already agreed on this budget before these dissenters knew what was in it, and there was no way to vote for what they want. The choices were "OK" or "cut more."
Granted, we know that many SLCSD residents think the board did the right thing in this budget. Was it most? Maybe, but this election doesn't tell us that.
Here's what SLCSD board President Debra Lennon, who was solidly re-elected, said she took away from the budget vote: "I guess the way I'm hearing it is, 'We're a little worried about some of the decisions you're making. We're trusting that you're doing the right thing, but pay close attention to the cuts you're going to be making if you have to make them.' I heard that message."
That sounds about right, and we were glad to hear her say it. But she was clearly wishing for a more "ringing endorsement" of the current board members than voters gave. That's evident from her disappointed statement about former board member Miles Van Nortwick bumping one of her fellow incumbents: "I don't think we worked together very well as a board in the past. I think there were a lot of free agents. Now, we are a team."
Ideally, a board should represent the range of its constituents. Being a team isn't necessarily good - teamwork, mutual respect and cooperation, yes, but not groupthink. That can lead to circling wagons against the public.
While we aren't thrilled about the fact that Mr. Van Nortwick's wife is on the district's payroll, we like his statement that administration is overdue for cuts. Voters clearly wanted his perspective at the table.
Other than the budget vote, electing board members is one of the people's main powers in school governance, but that, too, is limited since those members ultimately do as they choose. Beyond that, people can attend board meetings and plead, or amplify their messages by sending them to the entire community - through the Enterprise Opinion page, for example.
The leaders of the Lake Placid Central School District, for all its recent turmoil, deserve thanks for holding several public work sessions long before their budget was finalized. At each, board members and administrators hashed out details in front of up to 15 taxpayers, teachers and parents. That way there was time, when some aspects prompted public concern, to change them and arrive at a budget that was generally satisfactory.
This board, in this case, lived up to the standard of Mr. Kremer's quotation above; other boards should do the same. Their budgets were OK enough to get voters' passing grade, but was that grade a "C" or an "A"?