School Districts Under Stress

State Comptroller Thomas DeNapoli recently warned that several western New York school districts are facing “significant fiscal stress.” Most were in Niagara and Erie counties but one local district, Bemus Point, was described as being “susceptible” to financial stress. A common theme in the Comptroller’s report indicated that declining enrollment was a large factor in all of these school districts.

Many local taxpayers do not realize that school districts rely more on state aid from Albany than they do local property taxes to fund their operations. In many school districts 60 to 70 percent of all their revenue comes from New York State. Thus, school board members are always lobbying in Albany for more money.

However, school aid from Albany can be a mixed blessing. It is distributed through a formula which takes into account many factors but one of them is student enrollment. As districts have declining enrollment, they are not eligible for as much money from Albany. The state Legislature tries to keep districts at least at the funding level of a prior year through an adjustment to the funding formula called “hold-harmless,” but after a few years of that, districts find that they cannot keep up with the cost-of-living increases they are faced with. The result is “fiscal stress.”

We should not be wishing that our public school systems fall into fiscal stress.

Instead, we need to encourage them to take the necessary steps to address financial problems before they become unmanageable.

One way to do that, is to encourage consolidations so that larger enrollments can bring school districts to the critical mass necessary to carry on their functions. Albany policy makers also need to insure that adequate state aid is made available when school districts make these tough decisions.

As I have said before in these articles, the high quality of public education is one of the best things we have going for us in Chautauqua County. Our responsibility as citizens is to stand up and encourage school boards and state officials to make the hard choices necessary to maintain these high educational standards.

There are many reasons people move out of New York state but one of them has not been failing schools. We need leadership from administrators, teachers unions, elected officials and the community in general if we are to maintain public school education as the high priority it should be. We can’t let this one get away.

A Chautauqua County resident interested in analyzing public policy from a long term perspective writes these views under the name Hall Elliot.