Expert: public schools facing fiscal peril

Posted at: 01/31/2013 11:39 PM
By: Dan Levy

EAST GREENBUSH - Not only are New York's public schools facing fiscal peril, we're running out of time and options to fix them. That was the theme on Thursday night for an educational forum inside Columbia High School where the school's 850-seat auditorium wasn't big enough to hold the crowd.

In addition to the 850 in the auditorium, another 500 people looked on via closed-circuit television in the school's gymnasium.

For several years, school leaders have complained about funding shortfalls. The crowd and the commentary Thursday night seemed to underscore a growing consensus -- that schools have reached a state of crisis.

Educators from nearly fifty school districts throughout the Capital Region turned out, listening to education expert Dr. Rick Timbs tell them what most of the already know; that New York public schools are in a financial death spiral and the time to fix things is quickly running out.

"For some school districts, it's going to be a year or two and they're going to hit fiscal or educational insolvency," predicts Dr. Rick Timbs, executive director of the Statewide School Finance Consortium, "(Soon) they won't be able to pay their bills or their program is so substandard, they're not really operating as a qualified school district in the state of New York."

It's a crisis that state Assemblyman Pete Lopez (R - Schoharie) is all too familiar with.

"There are many school districts in my region that are just holding on," Lopez says, "They're high need, low wealth. Others that aren't going to make it. Their doors may have to close if we don't make things turn around in the next two years."

After losing $6 billion in state funding over the last three years, districts have been forced to cut staff and cut curriculum. They're asking the state to eliminate the Gap elimination adjustment, six the state aid formula, and provide meaningful mandate relief.

"We need to give them the flexibility to run their schools the way they need to and take the heavy foot off of them form the state," said Assemblyman Steve McLaughlin (R - Melrose), "(Schools) aren't bluffing. They are going to reach a point where they are educationally insolvent and that train is coming down the tracks pretty quickly right now."

"A lot of people don't understand the formula," Senator Neil Breslin (D - Bethlehem) suggests, "A lot of legislators don't understand the formula."

Breslin says he's optimistic that things can get fixed because, in his words, "That's one of the reasons that we all run for office."

Rick Timbs thinks the governor is trying to help with additional aid, but the problem, he says, is that too much aid has already been lost, and school districts can't hold on too much longer.

"I think they're going to be in fair condition and we're going to have to put a few of them in intensive care within 12 or 24 months, if not maybe another part of the hospital where they wheel them out."

Several area superintendents also addressed the large crowd. Guilderland Superintendent Dr. Marie Wiles noted that her district has eliminated 125 full-time positions over the last three years. She stated financial and educational insolvency isn't a function of "if" but rather "when".

Meanwhile, the host superintendent, Dr. Angela Nagle, stressed to the audience they have the power to help, urging them to contact their state legislators to ensure they understand the problem.

She also urged community members to attend a February 11th event at Niskayuna High School at 6:30 P.M. where they can learn how to advocate for their schools.