The actions of a defiant school board in upstate New York are reverberating throughout the state and reflect a growing frustration among many districts over years of late budgets from state leaders in Albany.
Turning their backs on state law, school board members in Fairport, N.Y., voted March 19 to postpone adopting their district’s budget until the legislature passes the state budget for fiscal 2004. The action has drawn a stern response from state officials.
The rebellious board began contemplating the move after studying Gov. George E. Pataki’s proposed $1.2 billion cut to education, which would lower K-12 spending in the coming fiscal year by 8.5 percent to $13.4 billion. (“N.Y. Governor Proposes Deep Cut in School Aid to Fill Big Budget Gap,” Feb. 5, 2003.)
The proposal would cost Fairport $2.1 million out of an $80 million budget in the 2003-04 school year.
Making the situation more difficult is that under current state law, school districts can’t restore programs that have been cut, even if they receive unexpected money from the state after local budgets have been passed.
State law requires all but the districts in New York’s five largest cities to have school budgets voted on by local residents by the third Tuesday in May. But the legislature has not met its own April 1 state budget deadline in 19 years.
As a result, districts must send budget proposals to voters without knowing how much state aid they will be given for the next school year. The resulting guessing game has turned many school leaders’ hair gray over the years, critics of the legislature say.
Last month’s unanimous vote by the Fairport board has been praised in local newspaper editorials. The superintendent and the school board president of the 7,100-student system in a Rochester suburb also are being cheered on by many residents.
The board is rebelling in other ways as well. It also has asked for relief from costly unfunded state mandates, and said it would send ungraded state exams back to the state department of education because the board prefers that the $30,000 it would cost to grade the exams be spent for other purposes.
“I can’t go anywhere without someone coming up to me in the street telling me they are supporting our actions,” said Maureen Nupp, the president of the Fairport school board.
Warning From Albany
The state education department says the law is clear.
In a March 27 letter to the Fairport board, the department’s legal counsel reminded the district that violation of state law is “grounds for removal of the members of the board of education and the superintendent of schools.”
The department also sent letters to school leaders in New York’s 700-plus districts, reminding them of the law. Only once has the New York state education department replaced a local school board and taken control of a district. Last spring, the school board for the Roosevelt public schools on Long Island was replaced after years of academic and financial problems in the district. (“N.Y. District Braces for State Takeover,” May 15, 2002.)
William Cala, the superintendent in Fairport, called the state’s letter “chilling.” While many school leaders support the board’s move, he said, other districts are scared to follow Fairport’s lead.
“Fear has been the motivation not to participate, and I can understand that. But if more districts join this movement, [the state] can’t remove multiple boards and superintendents,” Mr. Cala said. “Whenever you’re threatened and you’re taking a stand, you’re concerned, but this board and I have solidarity.”
Tom Golisano, a local business leader and the Independence Party candidate for New York governor in 2002, has promised to pay the legal bills for the superintendent and the district board if the education department acts to remove them.
Meanwhile, Assemblyman Steven Sanders, the Democrat who chairs the education committee in the legislature’s lower chamber, said school districts have every right to expect more timely work from lawmakers.
“Their frustration is clearly understandable,” he said. But state budgets have been delayed in some cases because lawmakers have been fighting for more education funding, Mr. Sanders added. “At times, it took us months and months to come up with a resolution.”
Mr. Sanders sponsored a bill that passed the Assembly and the Senate last week that would push back the deadline for local school budgets from May 20 to June 3. Gov. Pataki, a Republican, has vowed to veto the measure. Lawmakers began a two-week break on April 15. They hope to have a state spending plan the week of April 28, when they resume work.