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School heads brace to deal with fiscal challenges ; Proposed tax cap, aid cuts put programs in peril

In one 24-hour period last week, the superintendents of two of the most affluent and influential school districts in New York announced that they were retiring.

Thomas Coseo, in Clarence, and Howard Smith, in Williamsville, say it's a coincidence and is not tied to any worries about the future. But there is no question that they are stepping down at a time when schools are bracing for what could be the roughest financial period in at least a generation, including a call for a cap on property tax increases that could hamstring the programs districts can deliver.

"I think some superintendents are very concerned and somewhat frustrated that everything they've worked for in their school systems to develop new initiatives, to keep a reasonable class size -- they become frustrated over the fact that they're going to have to make severe cuts in staffing and programs," said Vincent J. Coppola, a consultant who helps districts find new superintendents.

"I think that's caused several of them to become very disconcerted and decide this may be just as good a time for them to leave as any. I don't think anybody is running away from any of these issues and problems. These superintendents who are retiring have gone through some difficult times before."

Longtime superintendents like Coseo recall lean times during former Gov. Mario M. Cuomo's administration, when school aid was cut midyear, leaving schools struggling to find ways to make up for the lost funds they had already built into their budgets.

Over the years since then, though, schools have generally enjoyed a reliable stream of revenue from Albany.

And in many affluent districts, the schools and the community grew hand in hand, with the district's reputation attracting thousands of professionals to the community.

In Clarence, for instance, student enrollment grew by two-thirds during Coseo's tenure. The number of Advanced Placement courses tripled. A new high school building exceeded expectations.

"People move to Clarence for the schools," said Dave Hartzell, CEO of Cornell Capital Management, a father of four who moved here from Long Island.

He said he planned to send his children to private schools until he started to hear stories about the public schools in Clarence.

"They're just so good," he said.

Although it's too early to know exactly how bad the damage will be, schools are bracing for significant cuts in state aid -- coupled with talk from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo about capping the increase in property taxes.

"Certainly being a superintendent in a period of growth, there are challenges involved in making sure there are sufficient classrooms and enough teachers to fill them," Coseo said. "That is much more exciting than to be superintendent during a period of retrenchment, when some programs may have to be cut and people laid off."

He, like Smith, did not cite the looming financial situation as a reason for his decision to retire. At 61, they both have worked past the age when many educators retire.

Both men, though, readily acknowledge that their successors are going to be faced with a very challenging set of circumstances.

Cuomo is calling for property taxes to be capped at 2 percent or 120 percent of the rate of inflation, whichever is lower.

"The last nail in the coffin" is how Joan D. Thomas, who retired last year as Orchard Park's superintendent, characterized the tax cap proposal. "It takes away the individual district's choice of supporting fine education. Some districts will say absolutely no way, and they'll vote it down. But at least they had a choice."

"If the tax cap is implemented, it will decimate schools across New York State," Smith said. "There will be some school districts that will have to totally eliminate interscholastic athletic programs, or rely on booster club funds, and eliminate all nonmandated subjects."

Williamsville -- which is better positioned financially than most districts -- is already looking at a host of possible cost-cutting moves that could include everything from increasing class sizes to eliminating keyboarding classes for fifth-graders and cutting the gifted program.

What cuts are made will depend on exactly how big the funding gap is, said Smith, who has been in Williamsville for seven years.

School officials across the region say they are slapped with too many increasing costs that they can't control, including pension contributions and health insurance premiums.

Williamsville collects about $100 million in taxes, Smith said. The district's pension contributions next year are projected to increase $3 million.

"And we have absolutely no control over that," he said. "At the same time, we're looking at a $1.6 million projected reduction in state aid."

Some school officials are calling for the State Legislature to impose a freeze on employee salaries statewide.

"I am very supportive of a statewide freeze on all public employee salaries," Smith said. "That would be a way that would be fair across the board and give the state time to step back and look at ways to solve this problem."

While schools have faced financial challenges before, administrators say what makes this situation unusual is that it's paired with a host of education reforms trickling down from the national and state levels.

As part of those reforms -- many of them driven by President Obama's Race to the Top program -- schools are changing the way they evaluate teachers and principals. Student assessments are becoming more rigorous. Schools are facing greater levels of accountability.

"It's not just the finances. It's not just the change agenda for education in New York State. It's not only the change in the governorship and the Legislature," said Donald A. Ogilvie, superintendent of Erie 1 BOCES. "It's the confluence of all of those factors at the same time that's on most superintendents' minds. We know we have to rethink how we do things. The question is, what can we count on so that we can sustain our efforts into the future?"

e-mail: mpasciak@buffnews.com

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