All levels of government are struggling under the weight of ever-increasing employee wages and benefits and state mandates, including the 2 percent tax cap, but school districts have been hit particularly hard in recent years.
State aid provides a large portion of each school district's revenue each year, and most school districts find it difficult to begin building budgets because the governor usually starts the state aid figure so low that it is basically useless. Nearly every year, state aid ends up being increased, but only when the governor and state Legislature finally approve the budget.
For most of the area's 21 school districts, Tuesday provided a bit of good news. Cuomo's budget showed an increase to 17 of the 21 school districts, making it easier for most districts to start building their 2013-14 budgets. There is still a problem in how the aid is calculated, given that Jamestown saw its state aid drop nearly $4 million while Brocton's aid increased nearly $1.5 million, but most school district officials will be happy with their initial aid projections.
The aid increases come at a good time statewide. Superintendents and school board members at a recent Chautauqua County School Boards Association meeting said 5 percent of school districts statewide are already unable to afford state mandates. Nine percent, or 60 districts, are within two years of financial insolvency and 41 percent of district foresee financial insolvency within four years.
Locally, Ripley, Brocton and Westfield officials have talked openly about possible financial issues hitting the districts in the next few years, with Brocton and Westfield officials considering a merger. Faced with stagnant state aid, rising costs and decreasing populations, those districts have been forced to think critically about their future. That is one reason we give credit to the Brocton and Westfield school officials for working their way through merger discussions and commend Ripley and Chautauqua Lake officials for at least discussing allowing Ripley students to attend Chautauqua Lake on a tuition basis.
More officials, at both the state and local levels, should be as proactive.
As much as it will help their budgets, we wonder if that magic money from New York state will stall such proactive discussions. Increasing aid to districts that should be reexamining their options simply puts off for another year state and local officials having to make a decision about structural changes to education in New York state and Chautauqua County.
That is the wrong message to send.