Share this article

print logo

COUNTY'S FISCAL FORTUNES DECLINING, YET SCHOOL SPENDING KEEPS RISING
SCHOOL BOARDS ARE WALKING A TIGHTROPE AS THEY TRY TO MEET NEEDS OF STUDENTS, PROVIDE ACCOUNTABILITY FOR TAXPAYERS

In the last 10 years, the City of Tonawanda's population has declined, the number of senior citizens has risen and average income has barely kept pace with inflation, while enrollment in district schools has dropped by 12 percent.

But school spending has jumped by 37 percent, and in the last four years, property taxes to finance the school district have risen by 20 percent.

And the Tonawanda School District is fairly typical.

In the last 10 years, school spending in Erie County's suburban public school districts has jumped by 44 percent, to more than $1.16 billion, according to state education statistics -- far above the rate of inflation.

In the last four years, property taxes for the county's 27 school districts outside of Buffalo -- which does not levy a separate school tax -- jumped by 17 percent, and that does not include all spending for capital and other projects.

Even in the 12 suburban districts with declining or stagnant enrollments, spending has kept rising. Holland, for instance, lost 10 percent of its enrollment, yet spending climbed by almost 50 percent, outpacing inflation by far.

At a time when Erie County government has already eliminated about 1,500 jobs -- and might have to eliminate an additional 500 soon -- the spending practices of the county's suburban school districts are rankling a tax-weary public and some government leaders who long ago gave up trying to get more money from Albany.

"They get help every year," County Executive Joel A. Giambra complained recently.

He noted that the State Legislature raised aid to schools -- districts in Erie and Niagara counties are scheduled for an increase of about $59 million this year -- but declined his calls for emergency aid for county government to avert large layoffs. He blames the power of teachers unions and other lobbying groups for the disparity.

School officials don't see it that way.

City of Tonawanda School Superintendent George W. Batterson said his district has been as frugal as possible, well aware that the community it serves is financially hard-pressed.

"We cut as much as we could," he said.

Last year, that included laying off 12 teaching assistants and four professionals, such as psychologists and social workers. But taxes still went up by 7.7 percent.

For the 2005-06 school year, school districts are receiving unusually large increases in state aid, and in many cases that has helped keep tax increases down.

Mandates questioned

School board members clearly had one eye on their budget proposals and one on the county budget crisis this year, and said as much. Many budgets that voters will consider May 17 feature lower-than-usual tax increase proposals and program cuts.

In the Frontier Central School District, board members took the unusual step of laying off teachers rather than present voters with a budget that carried a double-digit tax increase.

Still, irate taxpayers and other critics wonder how it is that even as population and jobs flee the region year after year, schools seem to have hardly felt the fiscal pain and have rarely cut spending or taxes.

Buffalo lost the most students. But other districts also had significant declines in enrollment.

Depew, for instance, lost 258 students during that time, but spending increased by almost one-third, though not much beyond the rate of inflation.

Batterson said his City of Tonawanda district, like others, was overrun by mandated spending or expenses beyond his control -- such as New York's tough new standards, contractual raises, health care premiums and steep increases in pension payments.

However, the degree to which spending is actually mandated -- or couldn't be prepared for -- is open to debate.

For instance, staffing levels are strict for special education students, and for years those increases have been closely tied to big increases in spending and taxes.

But the state does not mandate class sizes for most other students. Even New York's new standards, which require a battery of assessments, extra help and a Regents diploma to graduate from high school, do not mandate spending -- only that districts meet the state's goals.

Nor does the federal government's No Child Left Behind Act, which seeks to improve the performance of students, teachers and schools with yearly tests, impose mandates on class sizes or other spending, though it does promise penalties for districts that don't comply.

Brian L. Schulz, treasurer for the West Seneca School District, said districts are under enormous pressure to meet the new state and federal requirements and need more personnel to do so. That extra personnel costs money. For instance, hiring substitute teachers to tend classes while classroom teachers are grading the various new tests adds up, officials said.

Yet the mandated spending does not account for such costs. In fact, it is so limited, Schulz said, that there "would be little left" of most districts -- particularly high schools -- if all nonmandated programs were eliminated.

"No more (Advanced Placement) courses, gifted-and-talented, home ec, any number of classes," he said.

And, he said, no more being able to compete with neighboring districts that do offer such courses. That puts communities such as the City of Tonawanda between a rock and hard place, Batterson said.

For them, the question is not whether the community can afford to spend so much, but whether it can afford not to.

"You're constantly being compared to other districts," Batterson said. If a district does not measure up, he said, families will leave: "Parents want the best."

The biggest financial obligation for school districts is meeting payroll, and that increases every year to provide raises -- regardless of whether enrollment is declining or the community's ability to pay higher salaries is stressed.

Under state law, contracts for teachers and other public employees remain in effect, even if the pacts have expired. As a result, the negotiating of givebacks to decrease costs is difficult, officials said.

'It has a direct hit'

But some critics wonder how hard districts try. Jack Beilman, a longtime anti-tax crusader who bedeviled Lancaster school officials for years, said the law makes it hard to rein in raises and benefits -- but not to eliminate jobs to cut costs, as the county did.

Beilman thinks that this does not happen because school boards tend to be made up of education-oriented people who don't put taxpayers first.

"The legislators seemed to respond to their constituents, and action was fairly immediate," he said. "You don't see that in (suburban) school districts. You have to ask what their motivation is."

Richard Foley, president of the Lancaster School Board who is running for re-election this May, said that it would be difficult for board members to see themselves as running afoul of their constituents. "They elect us," he said. "They pass our budgets."

Other costs that are soaring lately, such as pensions, would have been too hard for districts to prepare for, Foley said.

State law lets districts put aside only 2 percent of their budgets for reserves. Combine pension, health care and other costs, and that sum would not have been enough to pay those bills without tax increases, he said.

And, Batterson said, the taxpayers would have complained if they had done so.

In the end, Foley and others think that residents would be reluctant to demand the kind of cuts in suburban schools that they did from the county, no matter how much spending and taxes increase. For one, he said, the state's School Tax Relief, or STAR, program has softened the jolt of increases in school taxes so that sticker shock is not the issue it once was. But he also thinks that residents would feel the impact of school layoffs much more than they have from the county's cuts so far. "You can feel it" when teachers are suddenly gone and class sizes are larger, Foley said. "It has a direct hit on you."

All the school districts (except Buffalo) put their budgets up for a public vote, West Seneca's Schulz points out. "If you put a budget that says a yes vote means a tax increase or a no vote means no tax increase," he said, "people will always vote no."

e-mail: ncervantes@buffnews.com

There are no comments - be the first to comment