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Facing disaster, Albany can no longer pass the buck

If the next governor and Legislature can't provide sufficient state aid for schools to meet their own mandated requirements to provide a sound, basic education, they must finally take bold action to help schools reduce costs. The most onerous school costs are required by state law or regulation.

The 257 school districts of the Statewide School Finance Consortium, especially less-wealthy districts upstate, understand that significant cuts in state spending will likely be necessary over the next few years. But at the same time, school district pension costs will increase about 47 percent next year and more than 40 percent the following year. Health care costs have been increasing as much as 16 percent per year. And many school districts have already spent most of their reserve funds to keep property taxes down during the 2008-09 recession.

Further cuts in school aid will trigger devastating property tax increases and drive more businesses, jobs and people out of state. If the state doesn't have the money, then it can no longer pass the buck. The governor and Legislature must finally make some hard decisions. The Statewide Consortium offers a four-point plan to avert disaster:

*The state must freeze wages for all public school employees when state aid is frozen or reduced. Only the state government has the power to enact this measure. No individual district can impose a wage freeze.

*The state must cap the amount a school district can spend on health insurance and require employees to pay a larger share of their health insurance costs. School districts cannot sustain costly contract provisions for salaries and benefits that were negotiated many years ago and that they cannot reduce under the provisions of the "Triborough Amendment."

*The state must enact major pension reform requiring public employees to contribute significantly more toward their pensions. The state requires school districts to participate in public employee retirement systems. They have no control over the cost of these benefits.

*The state must reduce the costs of special education by bringing New York's regulations into conformance with federal guidelines. These skyrocketing costs are also beyond the control of local school districts. Only the state has the power to make its requirements more reasonable and realistic.

This plan is neither perfect, nor a long-term fix. But we're in a crisis.

Passing the burden of the state's constitutionally mandated education responsibility onto local schools cannot continue. Schools have already cut spending as much as possible to keep property taxes in check during this downturn. Local property tax increases will simply be insufficient to meet school districts' rising costs. If they cannot provide enough state aid for schools to function, then our elected leaders really have no alternative but to enact these substantive cost-saving measures.

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Rick Timbs is executive director of the Statewide School Finance Consortium.

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