People who serve on school boards deserve a public thank
you for taking on this time-consuming, largely thankless, all-volunteer
responsibility. Their enthusiasm, dedication to education and desire to make a
positive difference should be encouraged.
Pride in their district, useful areas of expertise,
familiarity with programs and a desire to make their schools even better are
evident in virtually all the candidates’ thoughtful responses to questions in
the League of Women Voters of Saratoga County’s voter guide
What’s missing across the board is any reference to the
most expensive, complicated challenge facing public schools (and governments):
Benefits — for staffers past and present — eat up an
ever-increasing percentage of public institutions’ budgets. Yet instead of
focusing on contracts, school boards and administrators poke at programs. It’s
as if the terms of contracts — the major expense to districts — are
untouchable, not even open for discussion.
Whether teachers and administrators deserve these benefits
is not the issue. Taxpayers can’t afford to continue to carry them. Changes to
the retirement system have not gone far enough.
Look at the Saratoga Springs school budget as an example.
(An informative budget package can be seen in full at saratogaschools.org.)
Total benefits account for almost 30 percent of the
district’s $116.4 million budget. The dollar amount was $27.6 million in
2011-12, increasing in successive years to $30.6 million, $34.3 million, and
now, in the proposed budget, almost $34.5 million. And that’s with a reduction
of more than 95 positions in the district since 2009.
The biggest part of benefits is health insurance, projected
at $19.5 million, which is a reduction of more than a million dollars from the
current year. That’s progress.
In contrast, retirement costs are evidence of an
out-of-control trend: $6.9 million in the 2011-12 school year, $7.5 million the
next year, $9 million in the school year and $10.1 million for the upcoming
year. As teachers and other employees retire and live for decades, the
percentage of the budget going toward nothing that has to do with teaching and
programs will keep rising.
District spending in Saratoga Springs will increase 3.4 percent.
About 65 percent of the revenue comes from property taxes, and that is expected
to increase a bit over 2.2 percent. What does that mean to you? The district
budget overview anticipates a “modest tax increase for most district residents”
— actual tax base figures won’t be available to the district until the summer.
This doesn’t mean voters should reject their school budgets
After all, what you’re voting on is a budget in which most
of the spending is locked in by employee contracts that have already been
approved. Rejected budgets merely result in minor cuts to things like sports
programs and other extra-curricular activities that can be as valuable to the
educational experience as mandated classroom fare.
No significant budget reductions will occur until school
boards in districts everywhere step up to say, “Enough.” And if contractual
changes apply only to future hires, it will take decades to crawl out of the
benefits budget hole.
Everyone says their priority is what’s best for the
students. Contracts say otherwise.