New York state has left school districts in a terrible bind. Local districts are getting little or no increases in state aid in the governor's budget proposal, they have to meet a newly imposed taxing limit, and they can't avoid state-mandated programs and services.
The situation is dire for some local schools. The Broadalbin-Perth Central School District may have to cut more than 30 jobs, reduce full-day kindergarten to half-day, and cut athletics, clubs and other programs. The Fonda-Fultonville district may have to lay off 40 employees, and the Mayfield school district is planning severe program reductions.
The governor had suggested school districts could use their fund balances and cut the fat around their budgets, but those measures fail to solve the problem in many districts. Schools have too many mandatory expenses. In addition, they are committed to union contracts that require large sums for salaries, benefits and pensions.
Instead of forcing schools to gut their budgets and potentially devastate education quality, state legislators reviewing the governor's proposal should reorganize spending priorities and increase aid to schools. This approach is necessary, especially in light of the state's delay in providing mandate relief after setting the 2 percent tax-levy cap.
The state could find ways to cut spending for projects and programs unrelated to education and use the money to boost school aid. In addition, lawmakers could reduce funding for new school building and infrastructure projects, which aren't as essential as educating the students.
The state Senate and Assembly recently reduced funding for Cuomo's School Aid Incentive Grant Program from $250 million to $50 million, and shifted $200 million toward the day-to-day operations of high-need schools. This is a sensible step.
The Legislature and governor should steer more money to education operating aid for 2012-13, then give schools the flexibility to reduce spending in future years without having to wipe out staffing and important programs.