More school aid not the answer

Three years ago, Richard Timbs, executive director for the Statewide School Finance Consortium, offered a courageous solution to state leaders and area administrators for the tough times facing the numerous districts.

We applauded his plan that was not popular with teachers’ unions and some educators, but it offered a harmless solution for struggling districts. The four-point plan included these suggestions:

Freeze wages for all public school employees when state aid is frozen or reduced.

Cap the amount a school district can spend on health insurance and require employees to pay a larger share of their health insurance costs.

Enact a new major pension reform and require public employees to contribute significantly more toward their pensions.

Reduce the costs of special education by bringing New York’s regulations into conformance with federal guidelines.

“To put it bluntly: If the state doesn’t have the money; then state government can no longer pass the buck,” Timbs said at a consortium meeting in late 2010. “The governor and Legislature must finally make some hard decisions to allow public schools to bring costs under control.”

But being New York, where the private sector in upstate has suffered for half a century while the public sector has reaped rewards, these common sense tactics and proposed sacrifices gained little if any traction.

So in his latest visit to Chautauqua County last week in Mayville, Timbs came to rally support for area school leaders – and not offer solutions – to the biggest problem facing our overabundance of schools. Similar to a discussion at Shorewood Country Club in December 2012, Timbs’ view is correct that state aid that was once promised to districts years ago has never materialized.

“We can no longer sustain the current cuts called the gap elimination adjustment,” Timbs said, later noting that “school districts cannot operate properly.”

In other words, throw more money at problems and all will be better. Unfortunately, state residents should have learned through the Gov. George Pataki era that overspending never worked and it is probably one of the major reasons districts believe they are shortchanged today.

For every district, the biggest cost is in the employees. According to a recent study by the Empire Center, median teacher salaries in this area are close to $56,000. Add in the health and pension costs, and the total compensation at this level nears $80,000 annually.

Administrators also take up a big chunk of change. But even after doling out $210,000 in total compensation, schools could still have a disaster or a non-district resident as superintendent. Former leaders Mark Sissel in Westfield and Scott Smith of Cassadaga Valley got sweet deals in resignations despite plenty of questionable actions and baggage. Non-resident superintendents, which were a rarity 30 years ago, now take their earnings outside the county while not truly having or caring about the pulse of the community in which they serve to further their career.

School mergers, which would help decrease the number of superintendents, are not in Timbs’ forecast. He has doubts about the impact on savings. He also has said there is no true indicator that consolidations help student performance.

He may be right. But his plea for more money for small, financially struggling districts that have no local economy and already receive up to 75 percent of their budget from state aid should bring a lot of doubts from taxpayers as well.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has called for more sharing of services and consolidations if municipalities and government entities want additional aid to hold the line on property taxes in the coming years. A shining example of this would be the tuitioning of seventh to 12th-grade students from Ripley to Chautauqua Lake. Taxpayers of both districts deserve to be rewarded for this initiative.

That combined effort is something Timbs should be touting. Instead, a state educational leader is telling small school districts and their stakeholders that panhandling to Albany is acceptable in this tough upstate environment.

No wonder our society has grown more accepting in its attitude on entitlements.

John D’Agostino is the OBSERVER publisher. Send comments to jdagostino@observertoday.com or call 366-3000, ext. 401.