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Monday, October 24, 2011

Running From The Bear

It seems that two friends were out camping up in the Adirondacks. One morning as they sat and relaxed over their first cup of coffee they heard a great commotion in the brush not far from their campsite. They were startled, having just been aroused from sleep and not yet fully dressed. It soon became obvious that the noise that shattered their peaceful morning was a bear approaching them with a quickening pace. As one man was overcome by anxiety and fear he noticed his friend calmly putting his shoes on. He couldn't believe the lack of fear and response from his camping partner. "Why are you wasting your time putting your shoes on? You're not going to outrun that bear!" he exclaimed. At that point the other man casually informed him, "I don't have to outrun the bear," he said as he looked at his barefoot colleague, "I just have to outrun you."

Morbid humor? Perhaps. However, this story came to mind as I thought of our future school budget. It might surprise you that so soon after we began the school year we're already developing a framework for financial projections on a budget that will be in place for July 1, 2012 and end on June 30, 2013 - a full year and a half from now!

The impending and imposing tax LEVY cap (not the often mentioned misnomer of a 2% tax cap) sets some rather firm parameters for planning a budget. Given the expected costs of utilities, materials and supplies, and the calculated expenditures for people and programs, at a time when the national, state, and regional economy is still gripped by restraint and uncertainty, public schools are in a vise that grows tighter each month. With limits on the ability to generate revenue from taxes, reductions in financial aid from the state, more and more unfunded state mandates, and increases in costs, it's only a matter of time until a school district becomes bankrupt. It's more a case of when, not if.

Small school districts like Green Island suffer more from the impact of the variables noted in the preceding paragraph than their counterparts in the suburbs. Oh sure, all schools will experience cuts and each one will be painful. But, it's a matter of degrees of pain and tolerance. For instance, Syosset (in Suffolk County on Long Island) had to make dramatic decreases in programming due to the loss of state aid. Yes, they actually had to reduce the number of foreign languages they offer in kindergarten!!

Here's a New York Times article contrasting the effect of state aid cuts on two very different school districts, the aforementioned Syosset and Ilion (in the Mohawk Valley). Check for yourself on the lack of equity in this scenario.

If our school system went broke I suspect that someone in Albany would simply dismiss it with a call to merge with another adjacent district. What's one less school district when there are approximately 700 in the state? Besides, it's a tiny district.

Sadly ( and a bit morbid as well) our best hope (and I'm sure we're not alone in this reasoning) may be to acknowledge that we can't outrun the bear (the state aids cuts from above) but we may survive by outrunning other schools who fall victim to the cuts and declare an equivalent form of bankruptcy. Maybe then the state will do something - like enact the court approved equitable distribution of funds that resulted from the successful litigation by the group, Campaign For Fiscal Equity CFE sued on behalf of children throughout the state who were not receiving the free and fair education accorded to them by virtue of the state constitution. The lawsuit stemmed from the New York Adequacy Study
I am supportive of the effort of the CFE, not only because I represent a district that would truly benefit if financial aid from the state was distributed equitably according to need and ability to pay, but also because I was among the small group of educators who assisted in examining the determination of what constitutes equity in school funding formulas.

I wouldn't want any school district to "go out of business" for lack of funding the necessities and meeting state mandates, but I'm afraid it will take a dramatic outcome like that to provoke decision makers to comply with the court ruling and help schools in need.

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