Ever since I listened to the This American Life story about East Ramapo Central School District (A Not-So-Simple Majority #534), I have been wrestling with what this situation means for other school districts throughout the state.
I think it’s important to note that much of what is reported to have happened by This American Life and other sources is extremely disturbing. The actions reveal a violation of the social contract and a level of disdain for the public by a government body that is extremely troubling.
And yet, I couldn’t help but think that a larger structural impact is at work that threatens to make the budget cuts of East Ramapo the leading edge of a tidal wave of school budget pressures across NY. While East Ramapo is an extreme case, school districts across the state will begin to face additional budget pressure because of a confluence of an aging population, rising taxes, and loss of middle class jobs.
For those who aren’t familiar with East Ramapo’s story, I’ll summarize it briefly here (you should really listen to TAL or read one of the many articles about the district). Essentially, a large orthodox Jewish community who does not send their kids to public school decided to fill the school board with their candidates and reduce the budget to reduce taxes, cutting programs along the way. I am not going to describe in detail my initial caveats of the board’s unsavory actions.
While the loss of programming and classes is certainly disturbing, especially the multiple lunches in a single day, the board still increased the budget by 33%. To quote from the story
Some more numbers. During the last 10 years, every comparable school district in the county grew its budget by an average of 50%. East Ramapo’s budget grew by 33%. Which, to a layperson, you might say, well, oh, the budget grew. How bad could that be? I actually kind of thought that, at first.
But I talked to school administrators and experts who said that the costs the Hasidim and other conservatives say are out of control actually are rising alarmingly fast– pensions, health care, union contracts, cost of living. Those things grow by so much that a 30-some percent budget increase, that isn’t growth. That’s devastation.
This quote captures my concern that East Ramapo is just the tip of the iceberg. Over the last 10 years, we’ve seen the largest recession since the Great Depression, a large increase in unemployment, and a significant loss in home values which, coincidentally, are taxed to support the schools. Yet, the costs that are out of control “are rising alarmingly fast.” Needless to say, the current rate of growth in education spending is unsustainable in the current system. I’ve written before how school districts in NY create a structure that exacerbates social inequality, and I question the ability of a school district like Schenectady to continue to fund the budgetary growth in a community with so many children qualifying for free and reduced lunch that free food is provided to all students.
The rising costs are leading to social friction. In this last year’s budget discussion, the district held a series of meetings to get community input on where to cut to meet the $10MMUSD shortfall. One of the options was to eliminate a pay raise for staff. At my table, not only was this option emphatically supported, but it was coupled with resentment, anger, and in one case resignation that it wouldn’t happen because of the strength of the unions. Is this a prelude of an East Ramapo revolt?
According to the NEA, the percent change of average teacher salaries in NY from 2001-2011 in current $ is 41.1%. That rate compares with a private industry average salary change over the same years of 34.3%. Now, teacher salaries are not the only expense a school district faces, so I compiled the district expenditures for Schenectady, East Ramapo, and Albany School Districts for comparison (Sources: Expenditures, Median Home Price)
A couple of things to note: East Ramapo has similar expenditures (even per pupil) as Albany, and all districts have been increasing spending dramatically over the last 10 years despite a dramatic downturn in 2008. The typical caveats to the data apply, but it’s clear that unless district expenditures fall in line with broader economic growth, rightly or wrongly the extremism that happened in East Ramapo will appear in other districts, especially given the loss in the tax base. It doesn’t have to.
While set against a Jewish-Secular divide, the tragedy about East Ramapo is that the current students suffer because of unsustainable expenses that resulted in a tax payer revolt. To prevent this situation from occurring elsewhere in NY, schools should be funded by a large tax base, e.g. the state, to ensure that teachers and education staff can be paid competitively in districts, such as Schenectady, where more than 50% of students live below the poverty line. As anyone who’s been paying attention knows, the Schenectady School District is underfunded by the state by 46%. But costs need to be brought in line as well. NY state pays teachers more than any other state according to the National Center for Education Statistics, so pay and benefits should reflect market forces and cost of living. I’m not suggesting that the pay for a teacher match the median income because that would hurt poorer districts, but failure to normalize public employee salaries with private sector realities breads the sort of radical actions seen in East Ramapo. The Daily Gazette has a good article from 2012 that summaries the teacher salaries for districts in the Capital Region.
Finally, school districts need to do a better job of reaching out to those who do not have ties to the school. As the average age for starting a family increases and the population as a whole ages out of schools, districts will have to work even harder to convince voters in NY to approve tax increases. I want to see a larger presence for the students in the community. Have displays at Proctors of student art, give public performances at neighborhood meetings, and/or incorporate positive community projects into the curriculum and improve the city while teaching students.
School districts across NY state are on an unsustainable budgetary path. Unless district leaders, politicians, union leaders, and the public make compromises, the drastic cuts to school programs seen at East Ramapo will become more common; we all, not just future generations, will be worse off because of it.