Editorial: No need for extra layer of budget review

Does state really want to threaten to take away aid from very districts that need it the most?
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo gives his 2018-19 budget address Tuesday in Albany.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo gives his 2018-19 budget address Tuesday in Albany.

At first glance, it doesn’t seem like a bad idea to have certain school districts like Schenectady submit their budgets to the state for approval before receiving state aid in order to ensure they’re properly allocating their resources to the neediest schools.

What’s wrong with another set of eyes on district spending to make sure our tax dollars are serving poor and minority students effectively?

Nothing — as long as the solution is fair and will actually accomplish its goal.

So far, from what we’ve seen of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposal to subject a limited number of school districts to this extra level of scrutiny, this plan is neither fair nor is there any way to tell whether it will accomplish the goal.

Under the plan, the state’s five biggest districts would have their budgets scrutinized by the state. The program eventually would expand to 10 other districts, most of which get at least half their aid from the state. That would include Schenectady.

Generally, city districts with large numbers of poor and minority students fall under this category, because, obviously, they need more state help than other districts. So right off the bat, this policy appears to be discriminatory toward districts with high populations of minorities and the poor.

One question we might ask is why target these school districts for scrutiny and potential loss of state aid when there might well be other districts that poorly allocate far more money?

A small school district might get 51 percent of its aid from the state, but the actual dollars it receives might be far less than what a district receiving a smaller percentage of state aid gets. Should a wealthier district that potentially mis-allocates more actual tax dollars be any less subject to state scrutiny than another district? Maybe the scrutiny should apply to the districts that receive the largest dollar amounts. Or to all school districts, regardless of how much aid they receive.

Another problem this brings up is the fact that the state hasn’t established the criteria it would use to judge whether a district is spending its money appropriately. Districts would need detailed guidelines for submitting their materials to the state for review and have both an opportunity to amend their submissions and appeal rulings, particularly with their state aid at risk. Would the state make recommendations that the districts would have to implement, and how would they go about satisfying the state’s demands in a timely fashion? So far, no answers have been put forth, so how can the government go forward with such a requirement?

A major problem this raises is the issue of local control. Even though school districts operate under the umbrella of the state, they do have a fair amount of autonomy in how they spend their tax money that they use to educate their children. 

No two school districts are alike, and none of their problems and issues are the same as another. This proposal takes local control away from local superintendents, school boards and taxpayers in determining how to best deal with their respective school populations. In essence, it’s another state mandate on select school districts, in that the state is proposing to tell only these districts how and where to allocate the tax dollars they collect.

Plus, think about it. Does the state really want to be threatening to take away aid from the very districts that need it the most, like Schenectady, while letting other spend-thrifty districts get away with their wasteful practices unchallenged?

Another problem this review raises is timing.

The state Legislature doesn’t usually pass its budget until at least March 31. That’s only a couple of weeks before school districts are required to complete their budgets prior to the public budget vote in May.

This proposal assumes that the districts will have time to prepare their budgets with accurate state aid figures, submit their budgets for approval to the state, find out whether or not they’re getting state aid, then get the information back from the state in time to provide voters with accurate budget and school tax figures before they go to the polls.

Nothing moves quickly in state government, but we’re assuming this process will?

The best way to expose improper or inequitable spending practices would be to require districts to be more transparent about how they allocate their money. Force them to publish more detailed figures about where state and local tax money is being spent and force them to provide the justification to back up those decisions.

Then let the local taxpayers — the people who know their communities and students better than any state official could — express their satisfaction or dissatisfaction with that allocation process during budget hearings, regular board meetings and during the annual budget- and school board votes.

That, rather than some arbitrary state review, is most likely to produce the most democratic and most effective system of allocating resources.

The state should let school boards, district administrators, parents and other district residents do what’s best for themselves and their children.

Adding another layer of bureaucracy is not the answer to an already bureaucratic system, and is only likely to make matters more confusing, more challenging and more costly.

Categories: Editorial, Opinion

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