What Price Leadership?
Like several other states, New York is facing a budget shortfall that could plunge it into bankruptcy. In the latest attempt to keep the state solvent, the Governor has unilaterally decided to delay 10% of aid to schools. The Governor at first tried to exempt the poorest 5% of schools, but the legislature rejected that proposal. Consequently the 480 school districts in New York State, from Scaresdale to Lyme Central, will find their aid indefinitely delayed. Many schools fear they will actually never see that 10%.
It’s probably heresy on my part to say this, but school people are often among the most myopic when it comes to state aid. If only school aid were to be cut, they would have reason to complain, and complain loudly. In fact, social services and hospitals that many of our students and their families depend on are facing the same kinds of cuts or worse.
The problem is that the cuts come in the middle of the year, long after schools have adopted budgets and are living with them. If some school leaders were honest, they know that they can survive on fund balance. Other schools, particularly those in small rural areas and inner cities, will have a rougher go of it. And while few would actually admit it out loud, sometimes cuts provide the opportunity to jettison programs that don’t work.
The reason that the Governor acted unilaterally is that the Legislature, called into special session to address the financial crisis, preferred to cut nothing so as to be seen as heroes in their home districts. Of course, it isn’t as if the financial situation the state finds itself it appeared overnight. Last January, with a looming crisis on the horizon, the legislature nonetheless awarded school aid as usual. Everyone rejoiced. Frankly, school superintendents could have better dealt with the cuts while they were formulating their budgets rather than having to deal with them halfway through the year.
As expected, the unions are planning to sue the Governor (no cost there, of course). What an amazing show of leadership it would have been for school leaders and union leaders to step up and heroically say, “We know that everyone has to share the pain, and we’ll do our part this time so that the state can remain solvent and avoid even further crises.” I’ll put that on my Christmas wish list.