Runaway costs for education

A recent OBSERVER Publisher’s notebook made for interesting reading. The message was that many school boards and administrators are not acting wisely in the face of declining enrollment and ever-increasing school budgets.

Budget increases that outpace the inflation rate are putting inordinate pressure on taxpayers who have to pay more each year with no real hope if ever getting a break. Every year at budget time school boards and administrators tell us that they have cut their budgets to the bone making great sacrifices in the process. Taxpayers hear this tale nearly every year with school boards and administrators neglecting to tell us that small yearly increases soon add up to real money.

The result of those small increases is that New York state continues as the national leader in average spending per student. In 2016 New York schools spent an average of $22,366 per student. Currently several Northern Chautauqua County districts have per student spending that is over the state average.

Teachers in New York don’t start at the top of the national pay scale but after a period of years they reach the top with average pay of $79,637. According to a study by the Empire Center for Public Policy in 2015 per-student spending on instructional salaries and benefits in New York state was $14,769, a figure 114 percent higher than the national average. If a teacher or someone who is thinking of entering the profession, have as their primary consideration receiving a high salary they should consider another profession.

It should of course be added that many teachers are dedicated professionals who care about their students and make personal sacrifices of time and sometimes their own funds to ensure their students’ success.

Administrative salaries are also a major issue. Back when I was in school the district I attended had 1,300 students and a high school and an elementary building with a principal and their secretary in each along with a district supervisor and their secretary and of course a school nurse in each building. Schools in those days were lean without a lot of frills but students learned, graduated ready for the world and discipline issues were never a major distraction.

Today staffs in public schools include assistant principals, curriculum coordinators, psychologists, social workers, occupational and physical therapists and speech pathologists. Whether these are state-mandated positions the question still needs to be asked if we are getting our money’s worth? Do these positions improve our children’s learning experience and better prepare them for the world? Regarding school psychologists and social workers, we have to ask if family life and parenting skills have deteriorated to the point where the schools feel compelled to step into the breech? If that is true then society is in grave danger no matter what the schools do. Finally, New York schools spend on average $5,972 per student on administration which is seventh highest in the nation and 49 percent over the national average.

What can we do to control the cost of education? First the Department of Education, school administrators, school boards and their districts need to live with less. Next as many have suggested an important factor in controlling costs is the creation of fewer yet larger school districts through mergers. However, a reluctance on the part of many administrators, school boards, citizens and unions to merge districts has slowed this process.

Fostering a reluctance to merge is the question of the equalization of school taxes where some taxpayers in a merged district might pay more in taxes than previously while others could pay less. This is a contentious issue that needs to be worked out and should not be used as an excuse not to merge.

Often graduates of a school district don’t want to see it disappear. This is understandable but it should be kept in mind that during the history of our nation businesses, organizations and ways of doing things have disappeared when they outlived their usefulness and were replaced by entities and procedures more attuned to current needs. Why should school districts be any different?

Small districts with declining enrollments and rising costs will continue to place pressure on taxpayers. Equally important they will continue to rob our children of the educational opportunities afforded by larger districts, opportunities that will better prepare them for the future. Initially a merged district may entail greater expenses, but eventually the economics of scale come in to play where a district with a larger student body and larger tax base will have lower per student costs while being able to provide greater educational opportunities for all students.

These are hard decisions ahead regarding our schools and they need to be made sooner rather than later.

Thomas Kirkpatrick Sr. is a Silver Creek resident. Send comments to editorial@observertoday.com

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