If you’ve ever gone to a local school board meeting, you might have had trouble figuring out who was really in charge of things.
School boards regularly cede decisions to the superintendent. And it’s certainly understandable.
The superintendent is the highest paid employee in the district, and maybe the whole county, which can be intimidating to ordinary citizens serving on school boards.
Superintendents have usually got advanced degrees and years of experience, which also can be pretty intimidating.
That’s all why school boards should listen to them. But it’s not an excuse to let them have full control, especially over budget and staffing decisions that affect property taxes.
That responsibility and task belongs to the elected members of the school board.
Earlier this week, we saw a school board do something unusual. It pushed back.
The Niskayuna school board, unhappy with Superintendent Cosimo Tangorra Jr.’s “recommended approach” for a budget plan, sent him back to come up with another way to preserve jobs and hold the line on taxes.
Whether taxpayers like it or not, the coronavirus crisis is going to result in some pain, especially if state aid projections come in much lower than last year, as envisioned. Either the district will have to cut staff and programs, or taxpayers will have to make up the difference with a big tax hike. There’s no way around that
But how much is cut and how much taxpayers have to pick up the tab can be managed to a degree by the way the school board reacts.
If school boards just roll over and allow their superintendents to impose their will, it’s very possible that their districts and taxpayers may suffer unnecessarily.
That’s why it was encouraging to see the Niskayuna board battle back against the superintendent’s proposal to cut 35 staff positions, including 24 instructional jobs. Among the positions destined for the cutting room floor in the superintendent’s budget were social workers for elementary students and other vital positions of student support.
Rather than just say yes to whatever the superintendent proposed, the board told him to find more ways to cut equipment and materials and contracts for purchases the district could do without. At the very least, the superintendent needs to present alternative cuts and let the school board do its job of deciding among the various options.
This process should be taking place in every district in the region. Boards must find the fat in this coming year’s budget that they allowed to slip into past budgets. They must redefine the district’s
priorities. They must protect students and taxpayers as much as possible.
In the end, it could turn out that the Niskayuna board adopts much of Superintendent Tangorra’s recommendations anyway.
But by being aggressive, the board members are doing what they were elected to do and what everyone expects of them.
However this turns out, this one action is a good sign.