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School Budgets Pass, Students Continue to Lose

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The New York Times reported that school budgets in New York State were overwhelmingly approved this May. But the headline, "New York School Budgets Were Approved At A High Rate," was misleading. That is because districts were forced to make severe cuts in educational services by the Cuomo administration before submitting budgets to voters for approval.

This year was the first year that school districts had to limit costs and with them property tax increases to two percent. Ninety-two percent of the districts kept within this guideline either by cutting teaching and non-teaching positions or by withdrawing money from mandated reserve funds, and 99 percent of their budgets passed. Forty-eight of the state's school districts, there are over six hundred of them, asked voters to approve slightly higher allocations and taxes rather than making austerity cuts. This required a 60 percent super-majority and in these districts budgets were defeated forty percent of the time.

On Long Island, seventeen districts submitted budgets exceeding the state's tax-cap limits and in seven cases their budgets were defeated for failure to secure a super-majority. The budget for the Elmont School District required a seven percent tax increase. It was defeated despite the fact that 57 percent of the voters approved the budget and tax increase. Floral Park-Bellerose, which also exceeded the cap, was the only other Nassau district where the budget was defeated. This is despite the fact that the pre-K through 8th grade mini-district with only 1,657 students in two elementary schools has the lowest per-pupil costs in the Nassau County and had already sharply cut its budget the previous year. These districts can now opt for a re-vote on a revised budget on June 19.

According to a survey by the school boards association, to get budgets approved schools in New York State were forced to eliminate 4,263 teachers and non-teachers, increase average class size, eliminate electives and extracurricular activities, and cut back on sports programs. Not only will this hurt kids, but it will hurt communities. Employees that are laid-off, or worry about being let go, do not by homes, furnishings, and cars or schedule renovations.

In Uniondale, a largely minority school district near Hofstra University where I teach, the budget passed by a vote of 459 to 242. But this is not a cause for celebration. According to voter information distributed in the schools and on the district website, the district proposed a tax increase of 1.54 percent, the lowest increase in three years and one of the lowest on Long Island, and an expenditure increase of 1.68 percent.

The details tell the real story. The largest budget item is for teachers in regular school programs. Teachers already agreed to wage freezes and cuts last year and the 2.78 percent increase will probably not cover contractually mandated increases. The approved budget cuts library and media center budgets by 12.8 percent or over $500,000 and co-curricular activities, student clubs and after-school programs, by 52 percent or another half million dollars. Interscholastic athletics and recreation programs were also cut. One of the biggest cuts, 13 percent or over $400,000 was in curriculum and staff development at the same time as districts are being required to prepare students for state assessments and teachers are being required to adjust instruction to new common core standards.

The Uniondale school district is also counting on $650,000 in gifts and donations, although it received none in 2011-2012, a 3.36 percent increase in state aid that is not guaranteed, and $5.1 million dollars in "unclassified revenues," a category where they showed no income the previous year. I think this is the former reserve fund which will now be exhausted.

While fighting budget cuts in the 1970s, I learned the story of the farmer, the mule and the oats. At the time I thought it was an Eastern European folktale, but web searches keep turning it up as part of Christian sermons. Whatever its origins, it is a very useful story. According to the version I remember, a farmer was feeding his mule a bucket of oats a day. His neighbor said this was wasteful, that he gave his own mule only a half a bucket of oats. The farmer tried this for a while and the mule continued to work just as hard and seemed healthy. The farmer, excited by the savings, started to feed the mule a quarter of a bucket of oats a day and the mule continued to work and seemed okay. So the farmer cut back to a quarter of a bucket every other day at which point the mule up and died.

I guess the moral is, if you keep cutting the budget, the school system will eventually fall apart, maybe not this year, maybe not the next, but it is going to happen.

If Uniondale's approved budget is in anyway typical of the other Long Island and New York budgets, and I believe it is, the budgets may have passed, but students and communities will continue to lose.