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Report: Insolvency looms for NY school districts

Carolyn Thompson, Associated Press

BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) -- More than 40 percent of New York school superintendents say they will be unable to balance their budgets within four years if obligations and income continue on the current path, and even more say they won't be able to keep up with student instruction and services mandates.

A membership survey by the New York State Council of School Superintendents shows that amid a statewide push for improved student performance, districts are depleting reserve funds and cutting staff and programs to remain afloat, even with increases in state aid.

"The challenge school district leaders face is not just balancing budgets, but improving educational outcomes and providing students with the learning needed to excel in the real world," Robert Reidy, the council's executive director, said. "But under current state educational policies, it's becoming increasingly difficult to do both."

Gov. Andrew Cuomo this year increased the state's spending for its 700 school districts by 4 percent, or $805 million after three years of cuts or flat funding. The state spends about $21 billion on schools. Even with the increase, about 80 percent of districts are receiving less help from the state than they were four years ago, the council said. A spokesman for the governor did not immediately return an email seeking comment.

At the same time, New York implemented a property tax cap which generally restricts districts from increasing their property tax levy by more than 2 percent or the rate of inflation, whichever is less, with adjustments by district for exemptions like pension costs.

About 60 percent of superintendents said the tax cap negatively impacted programs and services. Roughly the same percentage said the cap makes it more likely that they'll be able to negotiate cost savings with teachers unions.

At the top of superintendents' wish lists is reform of a law that guarantees teachers' salary increases even after their contracts expire and a cap on district contributions toward health insurance, according to results of the survey, provided to The Associated Press.

Of 296 superintendents who responded to the online survey from Aug. 16 to Sept. 3, 9 percent — or about 60 superintendents — anticipated financial insolvency within two years and 41 percent foresaw insolvency in four years.

Superintendent Mike Ford at the mid-size Phelps-Clifton Springs district in central New York is in the latter group, even after cutting 50 instructional and support positions in the last four years, closing a middle school and raising class sizes to the mid- to upper 20s. He called for a more equitable state aid formula and meaningful mandate relief.

"We're getting closer and closer to the edge of the cliff," he said.

Meanwhile, 18 percent of superintendents in the survey anticipated educational insolvency in two years, saying they would be unable to fund state- and federally mandated instruction and student services. Fifty-one percent said they would reach that point within four years.

"The primary concern for all of us as educators and superintendents is the programmatic loss we're seeing to kids," said Thomas Burns, district superintendent of St. Lawrence-Lewis BOCES and the liaison to the state for 18 districts in New York's North Country. "Education is a very labor-intensive business. You need teachers and teacher aides and assistants to accomplish your mission, and so, for us to get our budgets in line, it means cutting staff and programs and that really affects the opportunities that our kids have."

Districts also reported spending more on teacher and principal evaluations following the state's adoption of a statewide evaluation formula. Districts reduced staffing by 3.9 percent this year, on top of last year's average 4.9 percent cuts, the survey found, and 59 percent of districts increased class sizes.