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    Kathyann Lorka
    Vice-President
    Board of
    Education

    Our Legislators Could Use Some Education

    Education is a wonderful thing – and our state legislators could sure use some, when it comes to understanding the frustrations and obstacles school districts continue to face, year after year after year.

    I recently attended the New York State School Boards Convention in New York City, with our East Aurora School District Superintendent James Bodziak and fellow board member Marybeth Covert. This 91st convention featured some interesting and useful seminars and networking opportunities pertaining to collective bargaining for survival, preparing school budgets in a perfect storm, effective teachers, the tax cap issue, bullying, and more.

    Attending these sessions, I reflected on all that goes into running a school district. And I had to seriously question how in touch - or, rather, out of touch - Albany and the Commissioner of Education are with the practical business of running a school district effectively. By effectively, I mean properly focused on putting students first, together with maintaining fiscal prudence and fiscal sanity. Do our state legislators or the Commissioner actually know how a school budget gets developed? How to run a basic meeting…a school district…a government that supports the mandates it gives us?

    They offer good sound bites, but have they sat in a school board meeting and thought the process through, as school districts do? I wish they would actually show up at one of our meetings and see the work that gets done and the issues that are addressed. I wish instead of dictating to us how schools should be run, they would make greater efforts to get their own house in order.

    Instead, what I see are state lawmakers talking out of both sides of their mouths. They want to control our school districts to the point where we cannot raise the school tax more than 2% to 4%, as if this were a stroke of fiscal genius from the state. Well, believe it or not, we already know how important it is to contain local property tax increases. In East Aurora , we haven’t had a tax increase greater than 2% in more than five years. Yep, we had that one figured out.

    Our school board members work hard to bring the message to legislators: don’t cap the tax, CAP the COST! And, how are they helping us cap those costs? Well, how about the latest unfunded mandate?  Now they’re requiring more mandatory training for new school board members. As if any new school board member, like any veteran member, with a lick of sense isn't already scrambling for all the training he/she can get.

    A more inspired and helpful mandate would be for the Commissioner and legislators themselves to be “trained” in the challenges school districts face. Perhaps they would benefit from a six-hour course on the impacts of unfunded and underfunded mandates on local school district budgets and programs.

    They keep talking tax cap, so evidently, we haven’t yet found the “teachable moment” to help legislators understand the need to control the spiraling increases in pension and health insurance costs. Those costs range from 12 to 16%, and somehow our already-burdened school districts have to come up with the money year after year. To heck with capping a tax rate, how about capping that?

    Instead, we are subjected to more and more state-mandated tasks and expectations, with no money from the state to accomplish them.

    So, where do we come up with the money? We’ve all been through this in our budget meetings, and we we always come back to budget cuts. Invariably, cultural programs are among the first things we look at. Or we get saddled with larger classroom sizes. Or make some other cost reduction that is unacceptable in our hearts but necessary in our budgets.

    We have so much to offer our kids, but can we afford it? “It takes a village” of school district administrators, teachers, staff, parents, state education authorities and state legislators working together – with the right attitude.

    We need to relax the mandates and reduce the cost of educating students and doing business in New York State. Cap the costs and you will automatically cap the tax.

    Let’s focus on keeping education affordable, and meaningful - not just something whose funding needs to be “capped” or whose programs must be reduced to the barest, affordable minimum. Let’s keep our schools strong, and our funding commensurate with our mandates.

    It’s not just in the hands of school boards alone. It ’s up to our legislators and our educational system to help make all that happen.