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School cuts coming <br> State's fiscal crisis forces issue of unfortunate but needed aid decreases

If it was a comedy, the scene would show a piano falling from the sky onto a school. Such is the prospect New York's schools are facing as the state wrestles with a catastrophic budget deficit, and it is anything but funny.

The arithmetic is unforgiving. New York is suffocating under the weight of a $9.1 billion budget shortfall. Residents already pay the nation's highest tax bill and state leaders have indebted them to the hilt. Albany is going to have to make cuts and, with health and education making up more than half of state spending, schools are going to take a hit. Local officials, to their credit, already are making plans.

Five local districts -- Lockport, the City of Tonawanda, North Tonawanda, Lake Shore and Allegany-Limestone -- are considering closing buildings. The pattern is not exclusive to Western New York: Albany and Liverpool, a suburb of Syracuse, also may close schools. Nor, for that matter, is it exclusive to New York State -- Kansas City and Detroit are moving toward extensive public school closings, and California has cut billions from education aid, eroding jobs, its small class-size standards and teacher support. Nearby Massachusetts and New Jersey are considering yet another round of aid cuts, and wealthier New Jersey districts may lose state aid altogether.

In some cases in this region, it's not just the economy. With enrollments declining, Tonawanda has looked at school consolidations for years. Now, with the prospect of reduced state aid, the district plans to close its three remaining elementary schools and construct a new one.

Around the country, some districts are considering allowing advertising inside school buses. It's a controversial idea, for obvious reasons, and it may be unwise. But other states are already doing it.

Albany can also help to relieve districts by loosening or dropping some of the mandates that drive up school costs. The Legislature -- wisely, if belatedly -- is considering changes to the required frequency of reports and the long-noted problem of the Wicks Law, a legislative sop to construction unions that drives up the cost of public projects.

What is urgent is for districts to acknowledge the train that is bearing down on them and plan creatively. Large tax increases need to be avoided as much as possible, though some of them, regrettably, are in the offing. Despite Lockport's plan to close two schools, cut more than 40 positions and eliminate after-school and summer programs, taxes could still balloon by more than 10 percent.

Schools, teachers, taxpayers and, of course, students are going to pay a heavy price for the twin burdens of the Great Recession and a corrupt, chronically overspending state government. Even in crisis, though, there are better and worse ways to respond. Districts need to gauge their residents and take steps to ensure that the inevitable pain is no worse than it has to be.

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