Our schools are in real trouble.
Everyone seems to agree on that reality, yet we have not seen any real, substantial changes to the states outdated education funding formula that shortchanges poor, rural school districts.
The Ogdensburg City School District, for example, has cut a shocking number of programs, staff, and therefore opportunity for our children, in the last six years. The states response has merely been to force schools to keep tax increases below 2 percent, while the costs of employee pension contributions which are set by the state health insurance for employees, and the general cost of doing business keep skyrocketing.
Meanwhile, the states Gap Elimination Adjustment enacted as a temporary measure a few years ago to help balance the state budget remains in place despite claims from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomos office that the state is now enjoying a budget surplus.
For those who dont know, the GEA is calculated so: the state allocates state aid, then takes back some of that aid to shore up its own budget. The state essentially gives with one hand, then takes with the other. The result has been a multimillion-dollar loss for schools since 2008.
In Ogdensburg, that loss amounts to $6 million, which could have paid to keep teachers and programs.
Instead, the city school district has cut close to 60 positions and eliminated a host of enrichment programs. Both of those line-item cuts mean a reduction in the quality of education our children are receiving.
State officials have given a lot of lip service of late to doing away with the GEA. We are interested to see what steps are taken in the states final budget to reflect that lip service.
The Gap Elimination Adjustment aside, we have said for a long time that the state needs to completely overhaul its education funding system so that it better reflects the economic realities facing impoverished, rural districts. Despite pleas from rural districts, Albany has made little progress in that direction.
We believe that could be because Albany is forcing our schools into a position where they have to take drastic steps that include mergers and consolidations. But the reality is that few school districts are willing to take those steps on their own.
Mergers will no doubt ease the pain for taxpayers and provide better opportunities for students in the short run, but without action from Albany to reform the state Education Departments current way of doing business, merged schools will again find themselves in the same situation a decade from now.
As our schools edge closer to disaster, the state has still been making abundant funding available for renovation projects that many of our schools really dont need, instead of funneling more money toward making sure our students know how to read and write, add and subtract. It is madness for Albany to hold onto the belief that our students need new auditoriums rather than electives to help better prepare them for higher education.
The state needs to get its priorities straight.
We hope north country lawmakers are able to bring some rationality to education funding priorities as they put the finishing touches on the 2014-2015 budget. There is no time to lose to salvage public education in the north country.