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Barbara Lombardo of Saratoga Springs, NY, is a journalism adjunct at University at Albany and retired executive editor of The Saratogian, The Record and the Community News. Follow her on Twitter @Barb_Lombardo.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

School budget priority: Kids or contracts?

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 at
What’s missing across the board is any reference to the most expensive, complicated challenge facing public schools (and governments): employee benefits.
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
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 Tuesday.
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.


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