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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, March 25, 2010

Has BKW missed the mark? Time will tell

Illustration by Forest Byrd

Hundreds of residents — many of them angry — filled the high school auditorium in Berne last Thursday night. We had received phone calls earlier in the week from tearful students, incensed parents, and shaken staff members.

We heard tales of teachers being taken out of their classes to be told their jobs were in jeopardy, of students crying to hear the news.

We reported months ago on the governor’s proposal to cut $1.3 billion in school aid; it meant that BKW — a rural district with a budget of not quite $20 million that depends on state aid for about half of its expenses — would lose $1.13 million.

All of those who called us wanted to know one thing: What was the Berne-Knox-Westerlo School District planning to cut?

We couldn’t get answers. Our Hilltown reporter, Zach Simeone, had repeatedly called the business official and interim superintendent over the last several weeks, trying to get basic budget information — to no avail. It appears that even the school board didn’t know what cuts the administration had come up with.

We understand that both the business administrator and the interim superintendent are new at their jobs and no doubt very busy with the heavy burden faced by administrators across the state, but it is essential to keep the public informed.

The schools, after all, are financed by public funds and, more than any other institution, schools belong to their communities. They are successful when the community supports them, and they fail when the community does not.

On Thursday night, Kevin Callagy, BKW’s business official, gave a PowerPoint presentation to inform the board and the angry crowd about the planned cuts. Simeone has detailed those in his front-page story this week.

The school board was wise to hold a budget workshop this week. BKW’s elected board members should be guiding the administration; they are the representatives of the people. From Monday’s workshop, we learned that, if no cuts were made, the tax levy for BKW district residents would increase nearly 20 percent. BKW, like districts across New York, is facing decreasing property values and increasing pension and health-benefit costs.

School budgets have typically increased by 30 to 50 percent in the past decade as, fueled by a strong economy, money for raises was available from the state and investments for pension funds paid big dividends. As Wall Street faltered and the economy sputtered, local property owners will now have to foot the bill. Typically, three-quarters of a school budget pays for salaries and benefits. As we’ve stated on this page for more than a year, freezing wages now and negotiating more conservative salaries in future contracts is the most sensible way to address this crisis.

To bridge the gap, districts throughout the state are planning on larger class sizes, less extra help, and fewer advanced classes — laying off as many as 14,000 teachers and 2,500 non-teaching staff.

The New York State Council of School Superintendents and the New York State School Boards Association surveyed the state’s 702 superintendents; nearly half of them answered. The report, issued this week, stated that 79 percent plan to increase class size, 70 percent to reduce elective courses, 67 percent to reduce extra-curricular activities including sports, 65 percent to reduce or eliminate field trips, and 50 percent to reduce or cut summer-school programs.

To keep taxes down, more than 8 percent of the surveyed districts expect to use some or all of their undesignated reserve funds. And some districts and unions have re-negotiated labor contracts to avoid layoffs and reduce the adverse impacts of the fiscal crisis on students. In the Pelham school district in Westchester County, the teachers’ union agreed not only to lower raises but to restructure pay scales, giving the district long-term cost savings.

So, Berne-Knox-Westerlo is not alone. And next year will probably be worse — much worse — for schools across New York. This is because federal stimulus funds, which helped districts this year and next, are good for only two years.

We urge school leaders at BKW, going forward, to keep residents informed about their school budget. The current lack of information angered the very people who usually vote in support of school budgets — the parents and teachers.

BKW went through a rocky period in the 1990s with budget defeats. A business administrator — one of a string of short-timers — left as he announced a $600,000 budget shortfall to the board. Then a new business administrator, Gregory Diefenbach, and the long-time high school principal who became superintendent, Steven Schrade, worked hard to get the district back on track. They opened up the budget process to include review by community members. And, in the late 1990s, they charted a courageous course in maintaining programs in the face of state-aid doubts. It paid off with voter support for a $15 million budget that came with a significant price tag — an estimated 13-percent tax hike.

Voters supported the plan because they trusted the school leadership and they valued education. Two years before that, we had urged BKW to put into place a citizens’ budget review process similar to that used in nearby Guilderland. We urge BKW to do so for next year. BKW’s current budget committee plays no meaningful part in the budget-building process.

Guilderland has used its model for years, perfecting it in the midst of its own budget crisis in the 1990s. Administrators present the proposed spending plan in detail to citizens who scrutinize it, question it, and state their views. The sessions in Guilderland are televised so residents without the time to come to meetings can watch from home. The process gets doubts out in the open, where they can be explained and answered. It also allows for change in an orderly fashion.

Finally, it informs the school board members who, after all, are meant to be in charge of the superintendent and must adopt the proposal that goes to voters.

This year’s budget review process in Guilderland has been more somber than most as the superintendent’s budget called for cutting 81 jobs to keep the tax rate hike under 4 percent. (Sixty-four percent of the surveyed districts are trying to do the same.)

Guilderland’s plan was based on recommendations made by administrators in each department who had been given a percentage they must cut. In this way, the people who best knew the programs were making the cuts, and trimming was done across the board so that no one program was gutted. Guilderland citizens reviewing the budget have expressed views ranging from raising taxes above the 4 percent, restoring programs, to cutting still more.

The Guilderland district, though, has avoided the intense anger and emotional outbursts heard at BKW last week because it has proceeded in an open and systematic manner to lay out the plan and discuss the choices. At the same time, Callagy, BKW’s business official, has repeatedly called the BKW budget “a moving target,” and hesitated to reveal plans until the state budget was passed.

Even if the state budget is passed on time, by April 1, that is really too late to start informing school staff and the public about the district’s spending plan. We acknowledge it is hard for districts to plan when the state is so unsettled. As of yesterday, the State Senate had backed the governor’s $1.3 billion in cuts to school aid while the Democrats in the Assembly, the majority party, were working on a plan to restore $600 million of those cuts while borrowing $2 billion.

BKW is more likely to score a bull’s eye, with a passing vote, if it lets the staff and public participate early in the budget process. The give and take will inform the administrators and the board members as they refine the budget proposal.

The Chinese word for crisis is made up of two characters — one for risk and the other for opportunity.

The BKW schools have been good for the community — and not just for the residents who have children. They’ve kept property values stable, which is measurable, and they’ve engendered something immeasurable — pride.

Let’s look at this crisis as an opportunity to improve. There is still time before the May 18 budget vote for board members and school leaders to level with the public. Residents can start by reading our news story this week, then responding in a well-thought-out way to the choices before them.

We received a notice yesterday from a Berne-Knox-Westerlo parent, Jackie Repscher, urging all district residents to attend the March 29 school board meeting. “We need all concerned community members to come together with our board of education, school administration, and teachers to offer suggestions on how BKW can best weather this economic downturn, which is causing New York State to reduce the school aid available in the future,” said Repscher. “We all want what is best for our BKW students.” We couldn’t have said it better.

Yes, there is risk in opening up the budget process to public scrutiny. It may well feel safer to hold figures close. People, of course, will be upset to lose their jobs and students and their parents will be upset to have programs — ranging from sports teams to extra help — cut. The goal should be, when faced with such a drastic cut in state support, to work together to fashion a budget that will still serve students without alienating taxpayers. The community’s future depends on it.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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