Cutting Art and Music Won’t Come Close to Balancing This Year’s School Budget

By Lonnie Palmer

(5/27/2020) – State aid to public PreK-12 education may be cut by as much as 20 percent statewide without Coronavirus aid from the federal government, which means local school boards would need to find roughly $2,300 per pupil in cuts to balance their school budgets without going over – way over – the current two percent property tax cap.

So how do they do it?

Well, they don’t cut art, music or sports. The solutions usually pondered by school districts trying to reduce tax rate increases and balance school budgets wouldn’t even put a dent in a 20 percent cut in state aid. The kind of state aid Gov. Cuomo is pondering amounts to roughly 10 percent of each school district’s annual budget.

For school districts like Shenendehowa, that means a $17.7 million budget cut. For Albany, it means $23.4 million and for East Greenbush – $9.8 million.

Those kinds of cuts call for major restructuring, and considering New York State’s school expenditures don’t result in higher student achievement – New York State spends $23,000 per pupil as opposed to Massachusetts’ $16,000 per pupil and significantly better test scores – maybe now is the time to consider the options and view this as an opportunity for new growth rather than a death sentence.

Consider the 75 local school districts nearest to Albany. The total budget for these 75 school districts is $2.64 billion. A 10 percent cut in the total budget for these districts amounts to $264 million.

There are three ways to reduce costs without impacting student performance: consolidate non-teaching services, focus on expenditures OUTSIDE the classroom and target programs that are not achieving the core education mission and restructure and cut there.

Consider this:

1. Capital Region BOCES, Questar (Rensselaer, Columbia, Greene Counties) BOCES and WSWHE (Washington-Saratoga-Warren-Hamilton-Essex) BOCES currently serve 75 school districts. Consolidate those 75 school districts into three larger school districts with one administrative, payroll, business office and instructional leadership team each. Annual savings: $36 to $48 million. Consolidate student transportation, operations and maintenance of school grounds and buildings and food services through each of the now Big Three BOCES and create an additional annual savings of $72 to $84 million.

2. Health insurance costs for the roughly 16,000 employees in the same 75 school districts is about $280 million annually. The employees on average pay about 20 percent of this cost leaving school districts with bills of $220 million for the same 75 districts. Take advantage of employee group size and bargain directly with health care providers, doctors’ groups, hospitals, physical therapists, pharmacies, etc. and leave the health insurance folks out of the process except for catastrophic coverage. If school districts paid the rates that Medicare pays the savings would be more than 40 percent. This strategy could save between $85 and $95 million per year. (With many health care providers struggling in a pandemic market negotiations favor the schools.)

3. Special education programs cost each of the 75 school districts about 20 percent of their budgets when everything (employee salaries and benefits, student transportation, special education aides, legal services, administrative and clerical costs, tuitions, etc.) is considered. Unfortunately, the data clearly shows the more a school district spends on special education the lower the test scores. We shouldn’t abandon our special education students, but we need to restructure parts of the existing special education program to produce better academic results. One-on-one tutoring for learning disabled special education students outside the regular school day is more effective instructionally than any of the much more expensive special education models (Integrated, Pull-out, Resource Room) now in vogue. Switching to one-on-one tutoring for all learning disabled students could save between $36 and $48 million per year and improve academic results.

Those three options add up to $229-275 million and don’t involve cutting teaching positions, increasing class sizes or cutting sports, music or art.

Lonnie Palmer is a former teacher, school principal and school superintendent and the author of the solutions-based book “Why We Failed: 40 Years of Education Reform.”

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