March 29, 2006

The School Budget Game

It is a rite of Spring. Every year at this time, the games begin.

We're not talking about baseball, we're talking about the School Budget Game. It's playing now in your district, but what you may not realize is, it's playing in all the districts. The rules are the same no matter who the superintendent is and who the school board members are.

First, the ground rules: because the board caved into its teachers' unions over the years and is on the hook for ridiculously generous health insurance and retirement benefits, its members already know the school budget is doomed to go up and that taxpayers in the district will once again get gouged. Then there's the matter of more administrators and office workers to help out the current administrators and principals who enjoy ever-increasing six figure salaries.

They do the numbers and it looks like, oh say, a 10% increase (again). Now, they know budgets usually pass. One reason is the vote is held on a Tuesday night in April when second homeowners are back in New York. Of course, whether the vote passes or not, the district will be able to spend as much as it needs anyway.

However, to avoid rancor, an attempt is made to placate property owners lest they rise up in opposition. This is how you play The School Budget Game.

Draw up a budget that calls for, say, a 13.5% increase. Then over a series of very public meetings, pare it down — make sure you wear pained expressions as you cut spending from a needed program — until you get it to where you wanted it to be all along.

Meanwhile, the local newspapers take the bait and dutifully ignore the massive tax increase, which comes on the heels of one last year, and the year before, and so on.

Consider last week's Suffolk Times. A hapless newspaper to be sure, and let's face it, the reporters aren't the sharpest pencils in the pencil case, but you'll get the idea. "[Mattituck] district trims $980,000," it began. "Superintendent McKenna laid out a series of budget cuts in order to hold the line . . . he made cuts across the board . . . McKenna noted it's a 'bare bones budget' . . ."

His cuts across the board and ability to "hold the line" somehow in Superintendent Speak means a 10% INCREASE over last year.

The "bare bones" line, by the way? They all use it, every year. It's priceless, since every superintendent solemnly utters it, in every district, with the same grave facial expression. They teach it at Superintendent School.

Here are a couple excerpts from our pals at The Sag Harbor Express: "all the fat has been trimmed and further cuts would go to the bone and muscle," said board president Walter Tice.

The bone and muscle is stuff like Superintendent Holden's lavish office furniture, new carpet, and French doors. The trimmed cuts, by the way, add up to a 9% INCREASE!

Here's another headline, this from The East Hampton Star, about Montauk district: "Budget Trimming Begins," it states. But we quickly learn the proposed new budget is — yes — 13% higher than last year. That's quite a trim job.

Give Southampton School credit for the most innovative budget increase. The board announced its gargantuan $46.6 million budget will rise by only 3.5%, "one of the lowest in the county." But according to the Southampton Press, the district will also hold a referendum asking taxpayers for an additional $5 million. If approved, the total increase will add up to a shocking 14.5%. If it holds, Southampton will win this year's School Budget Game.

Really though, all the greedy superintendents, who are by nature empire builders, and all the hapless board members who don't have the financial acumen to understand budgets of this magnitude are winners.

The taxpayers are the only real losers.

P.S. Listen up for the classic "only the kids will suffer" line — it's coming soon to a school board meeting near you!

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