July-August 2012 Issue
June 27, 2012

Budgets pass, but pain abounds

Author: Betsy Sandberg
Source: NYSUT United
Caption: Members of the Stillwater TA address postcards to residents of the Saratoga County school district urging a "yes" vote on the school budget. "We worked hard to get this budget to pass because we could not accept the cost of failure for our students," said Laura Barber, local president. Stillwater was one of three budgets to succeed at exceeding the state-imposed tax cap on the June 19 re-vote. In May, 29 districts succeeded at exceeding the cap.

Normally a near sweep of school budgets passing would be something to celebrate.

"We supported this budget and fought to get it passed, but class sizes are up at every level, while services are down," said Rick Lombardini, president of the Elmira Teachers Association, after 66 percent of voters said yes to a nearly $114 million budget in a re-vote.

"There will be no librarians at any elementary schools, music will only be offered half-time, physical education only 30 minutes a week and drastic cuts to reading assistance," Lombardini said. "There's nothing to celebrate here."

Besides restructuring and reorganizing elementary schools, athletics have been cut back and teams have merged in the Chemung County district. In two years, the district will move to one high school and close the Ernie Davis Middle School. Even worse for the Southern Tier, which needs every job it can get, 93 teachers were laid off while vacancies left by 25 retirements and five resignations will not be filled.

Elmira was one of the 24 districts statewide where voters rejected their school spending plans in May and one of nearly a dozen districts that got a majority of votes, but not quite the 60 percent required to override the state's tax cap.

While Elmira got 55 percent of the vote, Comsewogue was barely1 percent shy of passing. "That meant 41.25 percent of voters "robbed the other nearly 59 percent of the community of the opportunity to educate our children," said Beth Dimino, president of the Port Jefferson Station TA. Just over 30 votes separated budget approval from failure in the Comsewogue schools in May. In June, the budget was cut by $2.9 million and passed by a vote of 2,179 to 603.

NYSUT and locals urged voters to support what students need for the future. Like Comsewogue, most cut to stay within their tax cap. Three districts, Elmont, Highland and Stillwater, succeeded in exceeding the cap on their second try.

"A zero percent budget would have truly gutted any attempt to offer quality education," said Paul Latino, president of the Highland TA. "We've reduced library services at the elementary level and foreign language at the secondary level and class sizes at all levels are up."

Voters in two districts failed to approve budgets. Cheektowaga-Sloan in Erie County and Oppenheim-Ephratah in Fulton County must keep property taxes at the current level regardless of any increase in costs. It's likely the school districts will restrict spending on equipment, supplies and non-essential maintenance; community groups may have to pay to use school facilities.