State Budget & Funding Schools

In today’s Siena College Research Institute poll an interesting contradiction in voter thinking is revealed in hard numbers. On the one hand, voters do not want the state aid to education to be reduced; in fact they want it to be increased even if that means higher taxes. On the other hand, however, voters want the state budget to be cut and they want taxes to be lowered.

Of course we’re talking about voters in the aggregate, but that contradiction lives in the minds of many individual voters. Who ever said human beings — much less registered voters — are consistent?

The contradiction demonstrates that voters are sadly uninformed when it comes to education funding and the state budget. They view the problem from the perspective of their home community rather than from the state as a whole.

Voters are also loath publicly to oppose school spending. Yet, watch their behavior when they get a chance to vote on their local district budgets. If there is any hint of discretionary spending (on such items as libraries, art, music, etc.) and they’ll vote ‘no’.

The larger problem is complicated by the fact that governors don’t like to take on the problem of rich districts versus poor districts. There are districts across the state with large reserve funds not to mention solid tax bases, but try to reduce their next year’s state aid and they’ll run crying to their state legislators.

There is also the problem that we’ve had a laissez-faire approach to the organization of school districts. The fact is that there is unnecessary duplication of resources across the state as well as the failure to realize the benefits that centralization can bring.

Think of it this way: There are computers, fax machines, copy machines and other technology with underutilized capacity sitting in school district offices across the state. Tax payers have paid for their purchase and continue to pay for maintenance without getting the potential benefits that should accrue.

The same is true of people. Merge two districts and many of the people in the superintendent’s office from the superintendent down to the janitorial staff can become more productive without any increase in cost. Even teachers can be more productively employed. Were that not the case, then BOCES would not exist!

Here are two solutions:

1) Give districts a choice: demonstrate that you are lowering costs either on your own or as a result of sharing services with neigbhoring districts or have your state aid formula reduced.

2) Provide an incentive for small districts to merge. The State Education Department ought to be geared up to assist districts merge quickly and efficiently with lesson plans on how to reduce costs without any decline in service quality.

Other solutions, including reform of the Wicks’ Law that inflates construction costs, have been offered by a variety of organizations including the Empire Center, New Yorkers for Growth and Unshackle Upstate.

This is a great opportunity for voter education. Spread the word.

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