Publisher’s notebook: Schools living on borrowed time
A new year always brings a bit of uneasiness for school districts and their leaders. Within the next month, area boards and administrators will get the news regarding state aid. And while many expect to see a slight increase, it is nothing compared to the tidal wave of rising costs facing all schools.
Last month, Dr. Richard Timbs, executive director of the Statewide School Finance Consortium, spoke to about 50 administrators and board members from throughout Chautauqua County in regard to the crisis facing all schools in the state. Timbs believes the pending school district insolvency issue – better known as a bankruptcy – start and end in Albany due to an unequal distribution of funding.
“I’ve been talking to legislators about this until I’m blue in the face for years,” he said during the Dec. 19 gathering at Shorewood Country Club. “I think they’re starting to catch on. But we don’t need them to catch on. We got to have more than that. They actually got to do something about it.”
That’s not likely despite the fact there is no arguing with Timbs’ numbers. His concept, which his figures mirror, is simply this: the state’s wealthiest districts are receiving the most aid from Albany.
What rates as a wealthy district? In Chautauqua County, it is Chautauqua Lake, which has a combined wealth ratio of 1.5, Fredonia rates at 0.69 while Ripley is at 0.36.
Some districts, however, in downstate – and on Long Island – have combined wealth ratios of more than 30 to 40. That is the disparity Timbs is highlighting, noting it is up to lawmakers in Albany to have a more equitable plan.
“Time’s up. Jan. 1 (lawmakers) are going to take the oath of office,” Timbs said in December. “In two years, it’s estimated that between 60 to 160 districts are going to go belly up.”
According to Timbs’ figures, five of the county’s 18 districts have less than two years of cash in their fund balances. These districts include Jamestown, Brocton, Panama, Fredonia and Forestville.
Despite the doom and gloom in the future of school districts, Timbs does not always advocate for mergers or consolidations.
“There is no evidence that a merger across the state saves any money,” he said. “Have they improved student performance? There’s no evidence on that either.
“But they have opened up opportunities for students compared to the district before it merged. In other words it was so devastated in the loss of programs, courses and all the rest of it. When they merged it brought a huge influx of money.”
That influx of money is millions more per year that leads to better educational programming for students, which is what is currently being sacrificed in budget cuts.
“(Mergers are) a temporary solution,” Timbs said.
But at this point in time, “temporary” seems to be a much better option for local districts than the doomsday that many face in the coming years.
John D’Agostino is the OBSERVER publisher. Send comments to email@example.com or call 366-3000, ext. 401.