Losing sleep

New York’s government has long been the poster child for dysfunction. But low and behold, they’ve managed to pull off the seemingly impossible – they passed a budget before the April 1 deadline.

It has been five years since they’ve adopt a state-wide spending plan on time. It’s the first time since 1983 that they’ve managed it ahead of schedule. And they’ve closed a purported $10 billion budget shortfall without further exploitation of our already overburdened tax base.

Our state leaders deserve kudos for this achievement. Last year, if you’ll remember, the budget was 125 days late and included billions of dollars in new taxes and fees.

Governor Andrew Cuomo should be proud.

Of course, there will be repercussions to what our esteemed governor is calling “a historic and transformational budget.” Not least of all steep cuts to education, only a minuscule portion of which was restored in the final version of the plan. These are the things I’m losing sleep over these days.

I tossed and turned for hours on Monday night, after Norwich’s school board meeting. Silly, I know, since I don’t even live in the district. Nor do I have any kids. But that doesn’t mean I don’t care. I’ve had more than my share of sleepless nights this budget season, not only about Norwich, but the other four districts I cover as well.

No one wants to see anyone lose their job, but our schools – heck, businesses, too – have had to face a new financial reality over the last couple of years. Everyone has had to tighten their belt. Economic conditions have dictated the need to become more efficient in our operations and more prudent with our dollars.

We have no one to blame for this but ourselves, really. Because we spent our way into the problem in the first place. The state just egged us on. They encouraged the spending binge.

Want an example? Look no further than EXCEL building aid, which threw millions of dollars at school districts for capital projects. Were some of those upgrades needed? Did some districts spend that money wisely? Sure. But not all of those bells and whistles were necessary. Schools spent the money with abandon, because they considered it “free” since it came from the state rather than the local tax levy. But it wasn’t free. We as New Yorkers still picked up the tab.

There was a big crowd at the Norwich board of education meeting on Monday. Close to 150 people packed the high school cafeteria for the occasion. But the vast majority of those who turned out were district employees and their families. I’m not saying these people aren’t community members as well, but there was definitely a dearth of regular old taxpayers and parents. That disappointed me. Why? Because as our districts make difficult, life changing decisions about our schools all stakeholders should have their say on the matter. Attending these meetings – whether it’s just listening or actually standing up during public comment – is how you participate in the process.

So, let’s talk about cuts. I blame Governor Cuomo for making this process even more difficult. A month or so ago, in one of his “messages” to New Yorkers, he tried to assuage fears about school cuts by saying most districts should be able to deal with the aid reductions simply by trimming their administrative spending. Teachers unions loved it. But is it an accurate representation?

Maybe it’s true of a wealthy district with a budget in the hundreds of millions of dollars who only relies on state aid for a small percentage of their revenue. But the reality is much different for small, rural districts like those here in Chenango County. They are facing a similar dollar amount in cuts to their Long Island counterparts, but state funds make up a far larger percentage of their budget. And they can’t even begin to make up that shortfall with a 2 percent increase in the local tax levy

In Norwich, which has the largest tax base of any other district in our county, a 1 percent increase in the local property tax levy translates into just shy of $100,000. Health insurance premiums alone will rise by more than $380,000 this year. Just accommodating that would mean almost a 4 percent increase in taxes. And that’s not counting massive increases in retirement contributions, contractual wage increases and all those mandates schools must comply with.

Oh, and let’s talk about those mandates. Weren’t we promised some relief? Yep. But it didn’t happen. The committee the governor formed to tackle the topic was largely ineffectual. (Unlike the one tasked with Medicaid reform, I might add. They had concrete results.)

It was scary to sit there on Monday night and hear that 32 positions were being cut. The lions share – 25 – will be eliminated through retirements and resignations, but that doesn’t mean they are painless. And if I hear one more person say there were no cuts to administration, I’m going to scream. The athletic director is an administrator. Steve Griffin is one of the most dedicated educators I have ever met. You’ll be hard pressed to find anyone who cares more about kids. I consider it a privilege to have had him as a teacher during his years at Oxford. The elimination of his position is a great loss to the school community, and the students of Norwich.

Follow me on Twitter ... @evesunmelissa.

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