In this article I want to address a “non-County” issue that has the potential to significantly impact all of us. Our public schools are facing a financial crisis created by the proposed State Budget. On February 13th the Business Officials from Belfast Central School and Fillmore Central School made a presentation to the Board of Legislators regarding proposed changes to the State Aid formula. Bob Lingenfelter of Belfast Central and Thomas Ricketts of Fillmore Central provided handouts showing how cuts in State Aid to education will have a disproportionate (negative) impact upon Upstate school districts. The bottom line is that the proposed cuts will impact every resident of our county. During the presentation we learned what has happened to Upstate school districts in recent years. Their financial circumstances have changed dramatically. Several years ago the State required school districts to use accumulated fund balances in excess of 4% of their budgets to offset State Aid. As a result school districts now have much smaller fund balances than in the past. Last year the State passed the real property tax cap that requires a mandatory referendum for any proposed school district tax increase greater than 2%. Finally, the proposed 2012 State Budget calls for significant reductions in State Aid to Schools. Without large fund balances and without the ability to raise taxes school districts are facing drastic cuts in their programs.
The “across the board” State Aid cuts are not fair. The impact of these cuts upon Upstate schools is much greater than it is upon Downstate schools. Most Downstate school districts are much wealthier than Upstate schools, with far more taxable real estate. They raise more of their budgets from property taxes than Upstate districts, and get less of their budgets from State Aid. That has several significant consequences. A cut of 7% of their State Aid represents a far smaller share of their total budget. In addition, their allowable increase under the “tax cap” is much larger. Most Downstate school districts can cover their proposed loss of State Aid while staying under their “tax cap” limit. By contrast, most Upstate school districts are facing large cuts that far exceed their “tax cap” limit. Most of the school districts in Allegany County would have to raise their taxes by 20% or more in order to cover the proposed loss of State Aid. That simply isn’t feasible given the current economic climate and circumstances.
Boards of Education and voters in each School District will need to decide how to resolve the specific challenges facing their District. None of the options are attractive or easy. All of the choices are difficult and painful. Programs will need to be cut, faculty and staff laid off, and class sizes will likely need to be increased. Unless something changes dramatically in the next year, school districts will face even greater challenges for the 2013-2014 fiscal year. Some Districts, such as Cuba-Rushford, are considering closing smaller satellite facilities in order to cut expenses. Other districts are considering eliminating extra-curricular programs, such as athletics, drama, and music. Is this what you thought the “tax cap” would mean?
These are exceedingly complex issues that defy easy resolution. Our Boards of Education need our support and ideas. Hopefully we can put aside our personal prejudices and preferences and make prudent choices that will benefit our children and our communities for years to come. It is clear that we cannot continue with a “business as usual” attitude. It is time to look for “outside the box” solutions. Voters, taxpayers, and parents all need to get involved. The decision making process will work better if there are more people involved in it. I encourage you to attend the budget meetings that are taking place in most districts during March and April. Get involved and get informed. May God grant us the wisdom to make good choices during this difficult time.