School leaders have already begun planning for the next fiscal year. Prior to 2008-09 there was the anticipation of annual growth in state aid to education to help offset the increasing costs of contractual obligations, school improvement, operations and mandated programs. In fact, in the three years since the Great Recession began, there has been a net decrease in state aid to education. The gap has been filled by federal stimulus funds and federal jobs funding, both of which ended in 2011.
There are many implications from years of diminishing state aid. Chief among them are the steady loss of programs and staffing; but also, the growing inequity being experienced by low and even average wealth districts. The disparity has become extreme in recent years for small and rural upstate school districts. For the first time, there is talk of the inevitability of fiscal insolvency in some of these districts.
What lies ahead for education policy-makers at every level is the need to address three seemingly incompatible scenarios: the implementation of school improvement and support initiatives based upon the pledge to ensure that every high school graduate is college- and career-ready; the containment of cost drivers attributable to time-honored but increasingly burdensome mandates; and the redistribution of diminishing revenues in terms of the expectation of downstate-versus-upstate shares and wealth equalization among rural, city and suburban districts.
Traditional special interests demand that the Regents and State Legislature simply allocate more resources, using arguments that were relied upon before our economic and political landscape changed. A better use of our time and effort will be an earnest appraisal of how we can accomplish education's new agenda in an era of uncertain growth in resources. In other words: What is essential to our mission; what practices from the past can no longer be sustained; and what must be abandoned? We must also limit future cost growth with greater efficiency and effectiveness across the entire system of education.
The infrastructure of our school districts was designed for decades of population growth that has now ended. Questions now arise concerning the apparent redundancy of expenditures among the state's 700 school districts and 37 boards of cooperative educational services (BOCES). They must be answered by relying upon information, common sense and courage. Who doesn't love his local school district? But who among us doesn't see the dire need to consider reorganization?
This can be achieved functionally through sharing services and resources in order to eliminate the duplication of costs from operations and services currently provided separately. However, after careful analysis of their long-term viability, full consolidation of groups of districts and/or BOCES may prove to make the most sense.
Nevertheless, the goal in systemic reform is to sustain the investment of resources into more effective classroom instruction. This demands taking a closer look at the redundancy among districts of many instructional and non-instructional services. New York State's proven approach to accomplishing this, and the envy of other states, are BOCES. They were created decades ago to address, ironically, some of the same conflicting issues that challenge us again today.
BOCES are not the only way to achieve functional consolidation but they are in place, accessible and successful in serving the unique profiles of our state's regions. However, the service mission of BOCES must be updated by statute and policy for use in taking on priorities and opportunities, such as shared administrative positions; specialized services to support low-performing schools in light of state and federal accountability measures; regional transportation; central business offices; and regional high schools.
For example, in 2004, the Western New York Regional Information Center at Erie 1 BOCES bid and contracted about 1,000 miles of fiber cable to ensure a robust and cost-effective broadband network for 350 buildings within 100 school districts. What began seven years ago as a foundation for rapidly sharing data, video and voice is now the same cost-effective platform that will be used for emerging online resources, textbooks and assessments.
It is also time to increase the list of entities that may benefit from these cost-saving collaborations. The decision made 60 years ago to prohibit "The Big 4" city school districts from participating with other districts in shared services through BOCES be must reversed. Is there a valid rationale to keep public charter schools from partnering with other public schools through BOCES? Wouldn't it be a wise use of limited resources to permit public library systems to participate with schools in the same fiber network?
Our school districts and BOCES have been a valued component of this region's quality of life. The times have changed and so must we. We can no longer continue to take pride in our separateness. The near sacredness of so many local, public entities may soon become as unbearable to our logic as it has to our resources. The property tax cap is not a strategy for improvement or equity. However, it is politically popular and will ultimately have the effect of forcing change.
Leaders must work toward what we have not been ready to consider in the past. The system of public education needs to be rethought, redesigned and restarted. The longer we wait to address functional consolidation, the louder becomes the question: What do we want to pass on to future generations? Will it be opportunities to succeed in a new system designed for its time, or an unsustainable system that will be hard pressed to deliver college- and career-ready graduates for tomorrow's needs? Shouldn't we, as today's stewards, make changes so things will be different for these next generations?
Functional consolidation, led by school districts and supported by the Regents and state lawmakers, will bring us together in every sense of the word. Let's seize the opportunities to address our needs and build on our strengths.
Donald A. Ogilvie is district superintendent and CEO of Erie 1 BOCES.