When half of school superintendents who respond to a financial survey think their districts will be insolvent within four years, something is going on and someone had better pay attention.
The survey of superintendents – excluding Buffalo’s and others in the Big Five – asked how many thought their districts would be insolvent in two years and in four years. Of the superintendents who responded, 9 percent saw it coming in two years and 41 percent in four years.
About 40 percent of superintendents who were asked to complete the survey did so fully and another 47 answered some of the questions, for a total of 296 responses.
Two big issues underlie the districts’ problems: the weak economy and, especially, soaring pension costs. The economy will eventually come back around, but the problem of pension costs, interwoven with labor contracts and state law, is a much more difficult knot.
The result is that districts are already preparing their residents for a difficult budget season, even though it doesn’t culminate until voters have their say in May. Here are just some of the challenges districts are facing, from a News story by staff reporter Barbara O’Brien:
• 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.
The risk is not just to budgets or taxpayers, but to students, whose educations may be imperiled by economic forces over which they have no control.
The trajectory is unsustainable, and there is no obvious way for the solution not to include some kind of pension reform.
That will be a heavy lift, given the promises made to workers and the plans they have made on account of them, but neither can the state allow taxpayers to be pauperized by promises that can’t be kept.
There are other options, too, including consolidation of school districts. New York doesn’t need as many as it has and while consolidation would also raise tricky labor issues, it is a subject whose time has come.
School boards in Cheektowaga’s three school districts understand that. With the support of their superintendents, they have endorsed a study on the possibility of merging or consolidating their districts. Other smaller districts are considering the possibility of creating regional high schools that would provide more options to students than separate ones could offer.
Both are wise decisions. This is a time when all reasonable solutions need to be on the table. We are fast approaching the point where doing something about the untenable costs of pensions falls into that category.