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School mergers: The expense side

May 8, 2013
Steve Cockram , Westfield Republican / Mayville Sentinel News

Education is a labor intensive process. Although ads may show people learning a new language by simply listening/watching some software package, it is never that simple. Hands on educators are needed to ensure all students are learning and not falling through the cracks. As a result, 70 percent of school budgets are made up of wages, salaries, and benefits.

Some of these expenses are not in a local school's control. School employees are legally required to be members of either of New York State's Teacher or Employee Retirement Systems. Westfield's projected TRS/ERS increase is $270,000 for next budget year. This is so much higher than the nominal $100,000 cap amount that the cap rules allow more funding to be raised locally. All schools are mandatory members of the BOCES system, and this expense is going up by $50,000. Health insurance costs are projected to go up by $170,000.

Other costs are negotiable. Contracted salaries will go up by $190,000. Schools and their unions all over the state have been finding creative ways to minimize these increases, and Westfield teachers voluntarily kept it to the step last year. Still, overall labor costs are rising much faster than the tax cap amount.

Since every school must have a balanced budget starting the year, the usual way to address these rising expenses in the face of flat revenue is to spend savings dedicated to other purposes and/or cut programming, to cut classes. Each year schools review non-mandatory classes and pick and chose which to cut that will be least disruptive to the student's overall learning experience. It's a grim process to cut your kid's or grandchildren's options.

If a structural deficit continues until the savings runs out, then bad things happen. Schools are not allowed to go fiscally bankrupt - a plan used by private industry to stay in operation but the owners lose. The year after a school's savings are used up, large numbers of classes will be cut, quickly leaving the school academically bankrupt. The building may say "school" on it, but there won't be enough classes to make students ready for career or college. Schools everywhere have this structural deficit, and are trying to push this point out. Brocton and Westfield are both only a couple years from this point.

The views expressed here are my own, not of the Westfield Academy and Central School Board of Education

Steve Cockram,


WACS Board of Education member



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