Half of New York State’s school superintendents think their school districts will run out of money within four years, and 70 percent believe they will not be able to fund required programs within the same period, according to a new survey.
Some of those superintendents are from the Buffalo area.
“We’re all in trouble,” said Mark P. Mondanaro, superintendent of Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda School District.
“The only thing that surprised me is that districts thought they could last four years,” added Sloan Superintendent James P. Mazgajewski. “Where that money is coming from, I don’t know. I know the situation we’re in.”
Both said the recent survey of the state’s school chiefs by the New York State Council of School Superintendents rings true.
Sloan is one of only two school districts in the state to operate on a contingency budget this year. That was good news for taxpayers, because instead of the proposed 1.5 percent increase in the tax levy, new state rules demanded taxes remain the same.
But school officials are worried that with runaway pension increases and other costs, the Sloan district won’t be able to continue operating much longer without raising revenues.
If nothing changes, it is just a matter of time before every school district is faced with gut-wrenching decisions on what to cut, the superintendents said.
“We’ve been cutting bone,” Mondanaro said. “Some of us have cut more bone than others.”
And the cuts are likely to continue. Even this early in the budget process, local districts are looking at some grim numbers:
• West Seneca is faced with drastic cuts or a significant tax increase to fill a projected $7 million shortfall.
• East Aurora is projecting a budget gap of almost $950,000.
• Cleveland Hill reports its financial reserves continue to “hemorrhage.”
• Niagara Falls is looking at its “worst” budget in history because of increased pension contributions.
• Iroquois Central is considering job sharing when its transportation director retires.
• Frontier may not have any way to fund 20 teaching positions if the federal budget goes over the fiscal cliff and grants are cut.
It’s no wonder that the state survey of superintendents found that 9 percent foresee financial insolvency within two years, and 41 percent see it within four years.
Superintendents also are talking about educational insolvency: the inability to fund all the instructional and other student services required by state and federal laws and regulations. Nineteen percent believe their districts will reach educational insolvency within two years, and 54 percent believe that point will come in four years. Another 5 percent say they cannot fund state and federal mandates today.
The survey is representative of superintendents throughout the state, according to Robert Lowry Jr., deputy director of the superintendent’s council. If accurate, that would mean about 60 school districts could be financially insolvent by 2015.
Sloan’s Mazgajewski has been predicting that for a while.
“I was probably one of the guys who said two years for sure, if things stay exactly the same," he said, “I think we’re going to have a difficult time trying to get the community to override the cap.”
Sloan voters this year initially rejected a budget that would have raised the tax rate by 1.25 percent, the tax cap limit for the district, then turned down a second budget that cut another $30,000.
“The problem is, when you start to get into the financial issue, you end up cutting programs because you have nothing left,” Mazgajewski said.
Budgeting has become a year-round process, and some local districts held budget workshops last month, getting the public involved long before the May vote on next year’s budget.
Ken-Ton will discuss its potential budget deficit at its Dec. 11 meeting.
“To deal with these types of budgets now, everything you do affects the next year’s budget,” Mondanaro said. “You’ve got to do it earlier. You’ve got to have some type of multiyear plan.”
“You’re going to hear all kinds ideas because we’re in the financial straits we are in,” Mazgajewski said.
Three Cheektowaga school boards recently endorsed a study on the possibility of merging or consolidating districts in the town, he said.
There also is talk in some areas of regional high schools that would allow students from smaller districts to go to a school that offers more options than would be possible at their small high schools.
And Ken-Ton is undertaking a study on possible consolidation, in the atmosphere of steadily declining enrollment, rising costs, stagnant state aid and diminishing fund balances and reserves.
West Seneca learned in a recent audit that its $20 million fund balance has dwindled, and the district is faced with drastic cuts or a significant tax increase to fill a projected $7 million shortfall.
This is the second year the council has surveyed superintendents, and 40 percent, or 249 superintendents, submitted complete responses to the lengthy questionnaire. Another 47 completed some, but not all, of the questions. Big city superintendents and BOCES superintendents were not included.
Lowry said state policymakers need to either properly fund districts so they can follow the rules, or change the rules.
“We haven’t seen significant mandate relief,” he said.
That may not be likely soon, particularly in light of state resources devoted to recovering from Superstorm Sandy, and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s rant this fall about local officials complaining about mandates.
“You know what I want? Mandate relief from the federal government, and when I get it, I’ll pass it along,” Cuomo told reporters in October.
“Our job isn’t just to adopt numerically balanced budgets,” Lowry said. “We’re trying to educate students.”
And Ken-Ton’s Mondanaro cautioned, “Children only get one shot at their education.”