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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

Budget crisis has schools facing a new fiscal reality

Teachers, school board members aND local governmental officials

Teachers, school board members aND local governmental officials protest proposed budget cuts in Farmingville. (Oct. 27, 2009) Photo Credit: Kathy Kmonicek

More than one Long Island school district announced potential teacher cuts last week. There probably will be many more such announcements - and the districts likely are not bluffing.

Local school districts, like others statewide, are facing a new reality: Albany doesn't have the money they need. And recession-weary district residents - at least those who don't live in wealthy districts - are chafing at the prospect of higher property taxes.

"I've been telling everybody not to expect some knight in shining armor to ride in," said Wendell Chu, head of the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association.

But there's another reality at work.

School districts have precious little leeway in curtailing their largest expenses, which include mandates, such as special education services, from Albany. And they are tied to fulfilling the terms of binding contracts with public employee unions, most of which have remained inoculated from the frightening economic downturn.

Consider this: Between December 2007 and December 2009, private sector jobs on Long Island were down by 5 percent. But state and local government jobs increased by 2,700, or 1.4 percent, during the same period of time.

The entire increase - and then some - was concentrated in Long Island public schools. The number of Long Island public school employees went to 112,500 from 107,700 during that period - a growth rate of over 4 percent (which means that public jobs other than schools actually declined, according to an analysis of federal labor statistics by the conservative think tank Manhattan Institute).

So now, let's look at wages.

From mid-2007 through mid-2009, the average wage for private sector workers on Long Island increased by just 1 percent, while the average wage for state and local government workers increased by 8 percent, according to the institute.

"The public sector is asking a dwindling number of private sector workers, with lower wages, to pay taxes to support more public employees at higher salaries," said E.J. McMahon, an institute senior fellow.

On Long Island, many districts already have cut the easy stuff, from maintenance to some middle school sports teams. And many districts will be able to weather the storm because they are wealthy or have healthy reserves. Nonetheless, it is getting harder and harder for districts to cut around growing personnel costs.

Last year, local districts were helped by an unexpected infusion of federal stimulus funds. This year? They can't be certain of anything.

In the Northport-East Northport school district, Superintendent Marylou McDermott is one of a few Long Island school administrators who have volunteered to forego a raise.

Recently, McDermott, who according to state education department figures earns $233,000 in salary, $31,559 in benefits and $18,400 listed as other compensation, turned down a raise for a second year.

Her announcement inspired an editorial in all seven editions of the Times Beacon Record Media's weekly newspapers, which cover 15 North Shore Suffolk school districts, said executive editor Lee Lutz.

"Won't you follow her example, superintendents?" the editorial asked, and went on to ask all public employees to volunteer for a wage freeze that would not be paid back later. McMahon goes further, saying every public school union contract on Long Island should be reopened.

McMahon and others are right.

Now is the time for public unions to voluntarily reopen contracts and bargain with governing bodies for terms - wage freezes and health-care contributions - at minimum, that will help all of us make it past the tough times. For school districts, contract cost savings would free money to help keep the best new teachers teaching, and spare students the slow-motion dismantling of their schools.

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