Time for a little austerity

Published 9:19 pm Saturday, May 16, 2009

The Suffolk School Board has passed a $150 million budget, which will not allow the system to fill many of its long-vacant positions but protects all current staff and faculty members from losing their jobs. It was a balancing act made possible in this time of economic uncertainty only by the generosity of federal taxpayers.

School Board members and administrators are, however, understandably worried about what might happen once that well runs dry.

Considering the administration’s earlier admonitions about the potential role of federal stimulus dollars in balancing the school’s annual spending plan, however, it’s a little surprising the School Board was able to perform its bit of budgetary sleight of hand. Just a couple of weeks ago, Superintendent Milton Liverman was warning that the millions of dollars Suffolk schools would receive from the federal stimulus plan could not be used to help the city make ends meet. The money, he warned, was targeted toward certain programs and therefore unavailable for general financial obligations.

Email newsletter signup

That pronouncement came in the midst of the city’s own budget deliberations, when it was unclear whether Suffolk City Council would ante up the same dollars to support schools that it did last year. Liverman and the School Board were hoping for flat funding from city taxpayers and, it would seem in retrospect, hoping to hold the federal money in reserve.

Only when the city passed a budget that included $3.5 million less in school funding did the federal money suddenly become available to help the school system close the gap between revenue and expenses. There’s probably a good explanation for the sudden shift in understanding, but the average Suffolk taxpayer could be forgiven for wondering just what changed in the ensuing weeks.

Suffolk’s children deserve great schools, but the jury is still out on whether more money will provide that level of educational excellence. With a $150 million budget, the system continues to be a place where nearly one in five students who enter ninth grade will not finish school with their classmates.

School administrators, of course, contend that even more money will solve the problem. The next couple of years will give them a chance to see what they can do with a program of austerity.