Fine Levied Against Panama School Should Be Forgiven

Once again, state Assemblyman Andrew Goodell, R-Jamestown, and state Sen. Catharine Young, R-Olean, have secured money in the state budget to offset Panama Central School’s $4.9 million fine from the state Education Department.

The penalty was a result of mismanaged paperwork regarding cost reports after a capital project during a previous administration in 2005. The law then dictated that schools that were given a state grant for capital projects file a cost report after completion. A previous administration failed to file the report by the given deadline and New York state placed a penalty of about $4.9 million on Panama years later.

Goodell and Young have put in yeoman-like work over the past six years to make sure Panama officials don’t have to choose between paying the state’s fine or paying for a teacher for a classroom. Panama’s students, teachers and district residents are lucky to have Young and Goodell working on their behalf in this matter. The efforts of the state’s local elected representatives do not, however, change the inane dance that has happened for the last six years. The state fine hangs over Panama’s collective head, Young and Goodell secure money from the state’s left hand to pay the bill being held in the state’s right hand.

It is a truly ridiculous situation that could be resolved in one of two ways. One is Gov. Andrew Cuomo signing legislation passed again this year by the state Legislature forgiving the rest of the fine. The governor vetoed such legislation in the past because other similar fines haven’t been forgiven in such a manner, but last week the governor did approve the forgiveness of a $20 million fine the state Education Department levied against the North Syracuse School District under circumstances similar to the fine levied against Panama. A new precedent has been set — if the governor chooses to follow it.

If the governor won’t sign the Panama fine forgiveness legislation, then he should take a common sense approach for all districts statewide and end this silly practice of state Education Department fines once and for all. It still makes no sense for a state whose Board of Regents begs the governor each year for billions of dollars in new aid each year, under the guise of properly funding education statewide, to then turn around and levy arbitrary and capricious fines against those same underfunded school districts.

The state Education Department’s job is to educate students. In the case of the fine against the Panama Central School District, the only lesson students are learning is that New York state often makes no sense at all.