Cast an honest vote as school boards wrestle a dragon

Illustration by Forest Byrd

School budgets are the only government spending plans in which voters have a direct say. We’re not about to tell you how to vote on May 18.

But we do urge you to cast an honest vote.

What does that mean?

If you can’t afford the school taxes, if you weigh your own family’s needs — for food, for shelter, for whatever you consider essential — against the needs of the community to educate its children, and it is simply too much to bear, you have every right to vote no.

But, if you just have a vague idea that education shouldn’t cost so much, don’t automatically vote no. Take the time and make the effort to inform yourself. Look to our archives at www.altamontenterprise.com and read in detail about the problems faced this year by our school districts — the drastic reductions in state aid, the rising costs for pensions and health care, the stagnant property values in our districts. Then look at the ways your elected representatives — the school board members — dealt with those challenges.

The long-term solution, as we’ve written repeatedly on this page for the last several years, is to control the costs of salaries and benefits, which typically make up three-quarters of a school budget. As contracts come up for negotiations, school boards need to be aware of what the community can afford.

“The state numbers just get worse and worse,” said Voorheesville’s assistant superintendent for business, Sarita Winchell. So districts have to stop thinking that the state is going to bail them out, Winchell said, “Because I don’t think they are.”

She’s right. The state is broke, in debt for billions of dollars. And school districts can’t count on the federal government either. The federal stimulus funds will have dried up by next year.

We need to keep a lid on local school spending, and the way to do that is to control wages. School budgets have typically increased by 30 to 50 percent over the last decade as, fueled by a strong economy, money for raises was available from the state, and investments for pension funds paid big dividends.  As Wall Street faltered and the economy sputtered, local property owners are left to foot the bill.

That makes this year’s election of school board members particularly important. Read the profiles we’ve written about the candidates in Guilderland, Voorheesville, and Berne-Knox-Westerlo and see how their views on the issues line up with yours.

In the neighboring state of New Jersey, the governor, Chris Christie, urged voters last month to defeat school budgets in districts where teachers hadn’t agreed to a wage freeze; that was in most of the districts. The voters defeated close to 60 percent of the school budgets; usually, more than 70 percent are approved.

Where does this leave the kids?

We urged Guilderland School District employees to adopt the wage freeze the superintendent asked for; it would have saved $1.9 million, restoring many jobs and programs. While a handful of top administrators and their staff agreed to the freeze — and we applaud them — the biggest unions, of teachers and teaching assistants, agreed to a day off with no pay. The total savings was $220,000.

When contracts come up for negotiation, school boards need to remember the importance of saving jobs and programs by limiting raises. But this year, their hands were tied. Two of our districts — Guilderland and Berne-Knox-Westerlo — made drastic cuts to keep tax hikes down. Guilderland cut 40 jobs and postponed a million-dollar debt payment until the following year. BKW — a much smaller district with about 1,000 students to Guilderland’s 5,300 — cut 19 jobs and will raise the tax levy 6.7 percent.

Another small district, Voorheesville, which this year got about 26 percent of its funds from the state as opposed to the 43 percent BKW counted on, kept the tax levy increase below 3 percent. Voorheesville took advantage of retiring teachers who will not be replaced and refinanced a bond issue to save money as well as locking in a 4-percent increase in the cost of health insurance for a large block of those the district is obligated to insure.

In Guilderland, if no cuts had been made, the budget-to-budget increase from this year to next would have been 9.45 percent, which would have meant a tax increase of 16.8 percent. Instead, the board cut $7 million to come up with an $87.4 million budget with an estimated tax hike of 3.59 percent.

At Berne-Knox-Westerlo, if no cuts had been made, the rollover budget would have been about $21 million instead of the proposed $19.7 million spending plan. Without the cuts, the tax hike would have been close to 19 percent.

If you’re angry because you’re a BKW parent whose child was learning Spanish in the elementary school and now that program has been cut, you may be tempted to vote no.

If you’re a Guilderland football cheerleader who feels your sport is essential to school spirit and now the funds for that program and others must be raised by the community, you may want to vote no.

We’d urge you to reconsider. If you want to send a message to your school board, you’d be more effective writing a letter or speaking to the board at a meeting.

If the school budgets are voted down twice, the district, by law, must adopt a contingency plan with a state-set cap. For Guilderland, this means another $1.8 million would have to be cut from the budget.

That means more jobs lost, more programs gone, more students hurt.

We urge you to be informed and to cast an honest vote.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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