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Foss: A sad situation in Johnstown

Foss: A sad situation in Johnstown

Foss: A sad situation in Johnstown
The school district's proposed $38.5 million budget was defeated, and the Johnstown school board may have few alternatives.
Photographer: Stock images

I feel for the students in the Greater Johnstown School District. 

When I was in seventh grade, the school district in which I lived experienced a similar fiscal calamity. 

The response was swift, and I'll never forget the deep dismay I felt upon learning that most of the extracurricular activities I was involved in would be eliminated. 

Though I was just 13, the value of extracurricular activities was already clear to me. 

I could see that they kept students who might otherwise lose interest in school engaged, that they gave youngsters creative outlets and opportunities to hone talents and skills in non-academic realms, that they were an intrinsic part of what makes a school a community. 

Years later, I'd even go so far as to argue that the term extracurricular is a misnomer - that the programs and activities that fall under this umbrella are much more important than the word implies, that they are, in fact, essential. 

That's why I feel for the students in Johnstown

They got hit with the educational equivalent of an earthquake last week, and they stand to lose a lot. 

The school district's proposed $38.5 million budget was defeated, and the Johnstown school board has indicated that it will cut all of the district's sports, extracurricular activities - band, drama, clubs - and high school elective classes. 

It's a sad and complicated story. 

The budget was approved by a slim majority of voters, but it carried a property tax levy increase of 35 percent - 35 percent! - and thus needed a 60 percent supermajority to override the state property tax cap. 

For many residents, this was undoubtedly a tough pill to swallow, as Johnstown is not an affluent community. 

Its population is declining and its median household income is well below the state average. 

The district's local property tax spending per student might rank in the bottom 10 percent of all New York schools, but that doesn't mean residents are ready or able to absorb such a hefty tax levy increase. 

So I can sympathize with Johnstown's taxpayers. 

Which doesn't mean last week's budget vote won't have real and long-lasting consequences, none of them good. 

Students will lose out on the well-rounded educational experience they deserve, while the district's troubles will likely accelerate its population drain, as parents with children choose to live in districts with more to offer. 

Johnstown isn't alone - all across America, rural school districts are struggling to provide for their students. 

This doesn't make the district's budget crisis any less maddening. 

New York spends more money per pupil than any other state, but some districts clearly aren't getting what they need, while others have an abundance of elective classes and extra-curricular activities. 

This unequal distribution of resources is a serious problem - one I've never seen any evidence that the Legislature is interested in fixing.

As I said, it's a sad and complicated situation. 

Which doesn't mean there isn't hope. 

The district I lived in restored some programming by organizing town-sponsored sports teams, and Johnstown residents might be able to raise funds to restore some of its lost extracurricular programming. 

But it won't be easy, and it's the district's youth who stand to lose the most. 

Reach Gazette columnist Sara Foss at [email protected]. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper's. 

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