Education is a wonderful thing, but as a school board member and an accountant, I wonder how long we can sustain this system. As a taxpayer, it chills me. As a parent, it just about breaks my heart.
As school board members, we see operating funds decimated by state aid cuts, and spiraling costs of health insurance and pensions. We see that people are bone weary of ever-increasing local property taxes.
So, legislators suggest a tax cap. Yet, in my school district, East Aurora, we've had our own self-imposed "tax cap." We haven't had a tax increase greater than 2 percent in more than five years. But how can that last if school aid continues declining, and costs continue increasing? When you cannot control costs in one area, you reduce them in another. That's difficult in school districts, where mandates, regulations and contracts govern nearly all spending.
It can't be "business as usual." Yet I would rather not see more cuts from the "usual suspects" -- art, music, athletics, after-school programs -- at least not when there are so many other "heavy hitters" driving the big costs.
A report from the Statewide School Finance Consortium projects that 151 New York State school districts will run out of cash within the next fiscal year, and will need to borrow money just to meet routine expenses. And 220 districts are projected to run out within the next two fiscal years, followed by 276 districts within 30 months.
They're running out of cash because they're depleting reserves to pay for escalating costs and state aid cuts, and they cannot push the local tax levy to close that high of a gap. But a tax cap is not the answer. We must address the cost drivers. We must:
*Repeal the Triborough Amendment and finally put to rest automatic increases to teachers' salaries when a contract has expired.
*Repeal recent legislation mandating an appeal process for teachers and principals dissatisfied with their performance evaluations. In what other industry do the employees rebuff their evaluation? The costs and time imposed by this are unconscionable.
*Enact pension reform with immediate impact. It will take years for the Tier V "reform" to show savings. The crisis is now. If the state continues to require school districts to participate in the public employee retirement systems, then the state must require employees themselves to contribute significantly more.
*Along the same lines, the state needs to cap the amount school districts spend on health insurance and require employees to pay a larger share.
Talk with our superintendent and school board about what the tax cap and state aid cuts and spiraling expenses and unfunded mandates will do to kids, staff and programs in your school district. Then help advocate for the real reform we so desperately need.
Kathyann Lorka is a member of the East Aurora Board of Education and leader of the Budget and Finance Team for the Erie County Association of School Boards.