Reporting on our report

Tuesday, October 18th, 2011 at 12:24 pm by

A week ago, we released our report, At the Edge:  A Survey of New York State School Superintendents on Fiscal Matters.

It has generated a lot of attention.

I was invited to discuss the report with Liz Benjamin on Time Warner cable’s Capital Tonight statewide television show.

Superintendent Neil O’Brien of Port Byron (Cayuga County, west of Syracuse) and I discussed it with Susan Arbetter on the statewide Capitol Pressroom radio show.

It received a good amount of print coverage.  I think Gannett News Service did the best piece, running in many of their papers.  See this version from yesterday’s Rochester Democrat and Chronicle as an example.

A Sunday editorial in the Albany Times Union said, “The superintendents’ report should be required reading.”

UPDATE:  And on Wednesday (October 19), as reported in the New York Daily News, U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer cited our report in advocating for part of the President’s jobs plan.

The editorial concluded by recommending a dialogue between the Cuomo administration and school officials over what a “new era” of tax cuts and lower school costs should be like.

A point I stressed early in every media conversation is that while Governor Cuomo has been in office for less than 12 months,schools have been dealing with tough budgets for three years.

With some reporters, I said that if this had been the first difficult year, there would be a valid point – draw down reserves, make cuts away from the classroom, do what you have to do get through the year, and hope things will get better.

But many districts already had already taken those steps – in 2009-10 and 2010-11, as well as in 2011-12.

The report tries to describe the budgeting choices schools have been making over the past three years, some of the consequences of those choices, and concerns about future financial prospects.

It also describes some of the hard limits on school budgeting options, including, for example, how spending is distributed now, the pressures of caused by benefit costs, and limits on the ability of districts to cut some areas any further.

The report does not try to define possible solutions.  That has to come next.

Our silence on solutions led some reporters and others to fill the vacuum and interpret our report as a call for additional state aid.

But the report also stresses a second set of financial pressures besides state aid cuts and freezes which also began before Governor Cuomo took office – surging pension and health insurance costs.

Additional state aid has to be part of the solution – especially for poor districts.

During my television interview, host Liz Benjamin told me that during a news conference that day, Governor Cuomo said that he expected to follow through on the two-year School Aid funding plan in this year’s state budget with a 4 percent increase next year, despite recent bad economic news.

For now, that would not tell any one district how much to expect, but it would certainly be a much better starting point than what schools have been through in any of the last three years.

Whatever might happen on state aid, our sense is that our members see the need to be more aggressive in seeking help in managing the cost side of their districts.

We have regularly asked our members, “What actions could the state take to help your district reduce or control costs?”

But now we should focus on a second set of questions as well, not just how to cut costs, but how to achieve better outcomes for the cost:

“How can our schools produce the learning our students need with the resources our taxpayers can provide?” and “What does the state need to change to help advance that goal.”

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