Make Cuts Without Punishing Students

June 23, 2005

by Mark J. Grossman

It’s become a shattering precedent. Long Island voters have delivered “one-two” knockout punches to school district budgets at a record pace, voting down “round two” school tax proposals more than ever before.

With an aging population that has no ties to public school systems, disillusionment with dishonest government officials, and jarring corruption scandals in several local districts, we could easily find reasons why voters seem ready to rebuff school budget proposals.

But, for the sake of the children of Long Island, it is more important now for us to focus on the educational impact of these “round two” budget rejections, and to draw attention to a simple step citizens can take to help reverse this disturbing trend.

Under state law, a double rejection mandates district spending at a lowered level, formerly known as an austerity budget, now officially called a contingency budget.

Call them what you want, contingency budgets mean big cuts. Districts calculate their specific contingency spending levels through a strict, state-determined formula that considers existing contractual obligations, cost-of-living allowances and other factors.

Pushed by voters into contingency, school boards too often choose punishing cuts aimed at inflicting obvious pain to the community.

For instance, huge amounts can be saved by going from full to half-day kindergarten, cutting popular sports and music programs, and eliminating after-school programs and enrichment classes.

The goal of these tough-love cuts is strictly political — to teach the public a lesson. “Just look what you voters made us do to the children!” Board members hope that the pain of contingency results in regret and guilt among the electorate — that voters will never again wish to force such pain on kids and that taxpayers will protect tomorrow’s children by passing future budgets.

The logic there is that, if people don’t feel the pain of contingency, why would they support future budgets?

While I understand that rationale, as a parent, as a taxpayer and as a school board member, I support a more structural, sustainable method to spending reductions. I back a system where school boards take a longer, harder look at their budgets with the goal of retaining as much normalcy for students and to register as little pain as possible.

For example, after a budget failed for the second time in my school district this spring, we considered cuts in new textbook purchases, staff and board development, building supplies, field trips and transportation, among others. In short, less dramatic cuts that meet the contingency mandate but retain, as much as possible, the quality of our school system.

That’s because I view the “round two” budget rejection as a message from voters to reduce spending, not to inflict pain on children.

Compare it to a family responding to a tighter, new household budget. A family’s first reaction is not to reduce doctor visits or to defer the replacement of bald tires on the car. Rather, the family dines out less frequently, switches off unused lights, and generally finds new ways to cope.

And like a family that learns new and better ways to spend each dollar, dealing with the constraints of contingency can ultimately be a learning process for school boards and administrators who might find new efficiencies as they sharpen their pencils and take yet another look at their budgets.

The problem with this option, however, is that school districts will eventually reach a tipping point. If districts face a year or two on contingency, school boards may run out of the less painful type of reductions until all that’s left are stinging cuts.

Still, boards shouldn’t rush to impose those harsher cuts without first exhausting all of those gentler, structural measures first.

Also, the public can help shape smarter budgets well before the annual day of reckoning at the polls. Long Island would suffer fewer “round two” defeats — and fewer austerity budgets — if taxpayers were to get more involved in budget development on days other than election day.

Mark J. Grossman. Mark J. Grossman of East Patchogue is a member of the South Country School District Board of Education. He is a principal in a Bohemia-based public-relations firm.

Mark J. Grossman: Newsday (Combined editions). Long Island, NY
June 23, 2005 • Copyright (c) 2005, Newsday, Inc.