Local schools keep fingers crossed


By the Times-Journal news staff

Officials at five Times-Journal-area school districts hope a combination of economic factors doesn’t doom their 2010-11 proposed budgets.
Residents in Cobleskill-Rich-mondville, Middleburgh, Schoharie, Sharon Springs and Worcester, among others, will vote on school budgets Tuesday.
Despite the fact that all five districts are planning cuts in programs and expect layoffs or unfilled positions, all five budgets also carry a tax-levy increase, ranging from a low of 2.49 percent in Cobleskill to 18.5 percent in Worcester.
For months, school board members and administrators have grappled with unpleasant economics: Rising costs, sharply declining state aid and a recession that’s pushed taxpayers to the limit.
For most, it’s a juggling act.
“We need to find the balance between cutting enough to make the budget acceptable to our struggling taxpayers but leave in enough to be sure that we offer a quality educational program for our children,” said C-R Superintendent Lynn Macan.
District by district, the budgets look like this:
Cobleskill-Richmondville’s proposal is $36 million, $1 million less than this year. The state reduced C-R’s state aid by about $2 million, and to help cut costs, school officials eliminated or reduced hours for about a dozen teachers and non-teaching staff.
Middleburgh’s $20.4 million budget would raise the tax levy by 3.91 percent. There are no layoffs, but officials are keeping three positions vacant. Middleburgh is expecting a loss in aid of $650,000.
Schoharie is expecting a levy increase of 7.85 percent if voters approve the $19.9 million proposal. The proposed budget would spend $231,000 less than the current version, but the levy is rising because Schoharie is losing $882,000 in state aid. The district expects to lay off or not fill the positions of 11 teaching and non-teaching staff.
To help the district make its budget manageable, Sharon Springs teachers agreed to a salary freeze in the coming year. The $8.1 million budget would spend $33,000 less than this year but would still raise the tax levy four percent because of a $271,000 loss in state aid. Sharon is eliminating six teaching and non-teaching posts and is cutting hours for two other positions.
Worcester’s $8.7 million budget raises spending by about $1.1 million above this year, but the $32.6 million building project is causing almost all of that increase. The first budget draft called for a levy increase of 33 percent; officials then cut costs and plan to use money from the fund balance to reduce the increase to 18.5 percent.
Ms. Macan noted that with budgeting so difficult during a recession, the process has become year ’round.
“We can no longer afford to think about one year at a time, but have to think about next year, too, knowing that each budget builds on the last,” she said.
And because of the difficult conditions, school districts need more public involvement––and not just at budget time, Ms. Macan said.
She suggested residents share “thoughts, ideas and opinions throughout the year. We constantly catalogue this feedback for the appropriate time to put it to use.”
While Ms. Macan called for help at the local level, Schoharie Superintendent Brian Sherman said Albany should re-think its school aid system so districts aren’t on a rollercoaster of financing.
“The bottom line is the legislature and the executive branch need to reform the manner in which education is funded,” Mr. Sherman said. “The annual band-aid approach and short-term vision must stop.”
And he’s afraid the tangle of state finances may have a direct impact on Tuesday’s voting.
“I have a concern that the lack of trust in the state government will have a major trickle-down effect on school districts,” Mr. Sherman said.
Ms. Macan agreed but urged voters not to take out their frustrations on school budgets that are trimmed as closely as possible.
“We hope voters will recognize that there is little utility in voting a budget down to express anger over the overall economic situation of the state, nation and our area,” she said.