End of school budget season doesn't mean end of problems
By now, many school districts are starting to breathe a sigh of relief that they didn't have to raise taxes all that much while retaining a lot of programs the public likes, like sports and music.
Only a few weeks ago, Schenectady schools were facing a $4.5 million budget deficit and the elimination of all-day kindergarten and a lot of sports and arts programs. By the time they were finished tinkering, the school board had pared a projected 3.69 percent tax hike down to 2.7 percent and kept a lot of the goodies.
Same deal with the Niskayuna school district, which managed to temporarily take attention away from its budget by paying the superintendent a lot of money ($139,000 plus benefits) to disappear after renewing her contract several months earlier.
Kids were facing the loss of freshman sports and other programs under the budget. But the district trimmed the tax hike to 2.35 percent and saved sports.
Some last-minute budget fanagling — along with a generous helping of extra state aid from legislators hoping not to get voted out of office in November — saved the day in many school districts.
New York taxpayers pay more to educate their students than any other state, and some of the state's highest cost-per-student figures are in the Capital Region.
Having successfully sweated through another budget year doesn't change the fact that school operations need to change fundamentally if boards want to keep expecting taxpayers to pony up for sports and arts and librarians.
The same problems that have driven up schools costs still exist — employee salaries and benefits, pension-related expenses, unfunded mandates from Albany, and the inertia-at-rest that keeps school boards from changing the way they act on everything from contract negotiations to book purchases.
In most districts, employment costs make up 60 to 80 percent of the entire budget.
It's unlikely school districts will be able to count on another election-year state-aid bailout from Albany in 2015. Those surplus accounts they keep tapping into will eventually dry up.
And taxpayers, faced with another winter of rising heating bills, might not be so responsive to the annual spring rite of holding sports and music hostage to a tax increase.
School boards shouldn't wait until next year, or even next month, to begin addressing the complex, fundamental problems that keep school costs high and drive up taxes.
We all know what the problems are, and it's going to take a lot of time and effort to solve them.
The time to start working on them is now.