Long Island school officials are raising the specter of "educational and financial insolvency" -- contending that a budget squeeze threatens their ability to maintain small classes and enriched student services.
A procession of educational leaders warned at a regional conference in Holbrook Saturday that many districts could run out of reserve funds within the next two or three years, forcing drastic cuts in Advanced Placement courses and other popular programs the public now takes for granted.
The meeting, sponsored by the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association, followed Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's proposal Tuesday for a modest 3 percent increase in annual statewide school aid, accompanied by a single-year 1 percent bump. Cuomo was not mentioned by name Saturday, but local leaders said their warnings were meant to "wake up" Albany.
"We have three years or so until we run out of money, and by money, I mean reserves," said Charles Leunig, superintendent of Copiague schools and a conference panelist. "And that means not paying your bills."
The 4,850-student district has shed 40 teaching jobs over three years, raising some elementary class sizes beyond the usual 25-student maximum.
"We just hope we're not the first" to become insolvent, said panelist Roberta Gerold, Middle Country's schools chief.
Taxpayer representatives dismiss such warnings as exaggerations, saying that districts have the power to curb salaries. Those critics note -- and schools leaders acknowledge -- that teachers' contractual pay raises and built-in "step" increases run about 5 percent annually, more than double the inflation rate.
"There is a famous Irish word: malarkey," said Fred Gorman of Nesconset, a founder of the Long Islanders for Educational Reform taxpayer group. "And nothing fits the word better than that. A school board has 100 percent control over contracts no matter what they tell you."
The prospect of district "insolvency" has been talked about for several years in impoverished upstate areas. The Holbrook panel discussion, titled Educational and Financial Insolvency, was a rare public discussion of the issue here.
School districts in New York State are not legally permitted to declare bankruptcy. Thus, a district in financial straits could be forced to make Draconian cuts -- for example, eliminating kindergarten classes, which are not required by law.
Anthony Cacciola, the West Babylon superintendent, suggested at Saturday's meeting that such districts might renege on contracts and fight efforts to collect in court -- an approach many experts consider a long shot.
This is the first year that districts are operating under state property-tax caps -- a Cuomo initiative that has four more years to run before it requires reauthorization.
Many districts say the caps, coupled with rising costs of pensions and other state mandates, soon will make it impossible to sustain existing services. The governor has proposed new rules allowing districts to spread out pension costs, paying lower rates in the years immediately ahead but continuing to pay those rates for longer periods.