With more than one month to go before area administrators really begin crunching the numbers, the word "insolvency" is being heard more at area school districts.
David O'Rourke, Erie-2-Chautauqua-Cattaraugus Board of Cooperative Educational Services superintendent, talked about the two forms of insolvency facing local districts in October while meeting with the Rotary Club of Dunkirk: financial and academic. The larger the strain on finances, the fewer the educational programs a district can provide.
"There are districts that are absolutely down to the bare minimum and really facing, because of revenue pressures, the possibility of a new concept ... that's academic insolvency where the school district is unable to even finance the basic programs for the children," O'Rourke told the group two months ago.
What adds to these already alarming issues is exactly what happened in our county's smallest school district this month, which handed out pay raises over two years totaling more than 7 percent to its teachers.
"We know times are tough and we wanted to be fair to the taxpayer and the teachers," Ripley school Superintendent Karen Krause said. "In a few years we will know better what is going to happen in the economic climate."
Talk about being out of touch with reality.
The 320-student district is just about as bare-bones as you can get when it comes to educational opportunities and programs. But being "fair" is a 7 percent raise to teachers over two years?
It seems as though Ripley school board members and six-figure earner Krause have never worked in the private sector when "times are tough."
The district, however, was fiscally responsible in freezing the salaries of some of their lower-paid employees - bus drivers and coaches. It is an action that smacks of a 3-year-old opening his piggy bank. Instead of going for the big bucks, the toddler picks up the loose change.
And the big bucks of teacher salaries make up the largest portion of area school budgets. A breakdown, courtesy of seethroughny.net, for 2012 as is follows:
Brocton, $4.8 million.
Cassadaga Valley, $9.5 million.
Chautauqua Lake, $9 million.
Dunkirk, $19.8 million.
Forestville, $4.9 million.
Fredonia, $12.6 million.
Gowanda, $12.6 million.
Pine Valley, $6.6 million.
Ripley, $3.3 million.
Silver Creek, $9.2 million.
Westfield, $7.3 million.
Combined, these educational salaries total $99.6 million for 11 districts. For some perspective, the 2012 salary cap for one of only 32 National Football League teams is $120.6 million.
Adding in health insurance and benefits to these earnings, the total compensation for the 11 districts would be $139.4 million. That amount exceeds the current NFL cap.
If educational leaders are serious about making our districts financially viable for the future, reduced salaries and benefits, as well as consolidation, must be a part of the conversation. Those are the key factors in the budgets every year.
Continuing to blame New York state and the federal government for lack of assistance is a small part of the story and it is a reality. But for any school district, especially the rural ones with declining enrollment, responsibility begins at home.
Handing out 7 percent pay hikes is in no way defensible in a district where the reduced and free lunch rate is 65 percent for its 320-student population.
And ultimately, the decision was not responsible for a district that teeters on insolvency or to those who pick up a major portion of that tab - the Ripley taxpayers.
John D'Agostino is the publisher of the OBSERVER. Send comments to email@example.com or call 366-3000, ext. 401.