Look beyond this year

Published 9:14 pm Saturday, March 6, 2010

For all the worries about the state of Suffolk schools as a result of the millions of dollars worth of expected cuts in education funding this year, there is a worrisome bit of information that has largely been overlooked: Next year’s situation could be even worse.

Though everyone involved is focusing on what will take place in 2010-2011, the governor’s proposed budget includes projections for the following year, as well. Here’s the upshot: Tax collections are not expected to improve significantly, as the economy is expected to recover slowly, at best. Adding to the pain is the fact that the stimulus money the state used for two years to help finance schools will be gone in the 2011-2012 budget.

Though he is concentrating his efforts on balancing the coming year’s budget, Suffolk School Superintendent Milton Liverman is justifiably concerned about the following year, as well, having noted that nearly $2 million in “state” funding in the budget that School Board members are considering today actually comes from federal stimulus money.

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In short, whatever happens with the school system’s budget this year, there is likely to be even less money available from the commonwealth for local schools next year.

Given that fact, people on both sides of the school funding issue should be looking at Suffolk’s plight from a wider perspective. Estimates vary at this point, but the city could lose as much as $9.4 million in state education funding this year. With millions more at stake next year, the question shouldn’t be, “What are our priorities this year?” Instead, leaders, parents, teachers and other taxpayers need to be asking, “What are our long-term priorities, and what should we do to make sure they’re met?”

Reasonable people can disagree over the question of whether taxpayers should ante up the money that will be needed to keep small elementary schools open this year, for example, but the knowledge that taxpayers may be asked to pour even more money into the same cause next year should be a part of any decision that the administration and School Board officials make for 2010-2011.

Despite the emotions that are involved — and as evidenced by the 1,000 people who turned out to lobby the School Board for various programs and positions during a public hearing on Thursday — there are no easy answers to the school-funding problem. Neither the anti-tax-increase crowd nor those who believe educational programs should be sacrosanct are likely to be happy with the compromise that they’ll be forced to accept this year.

But if there isn’t an honest assessment by all parties of the situation as it is likely to exist in the foreseeable future, the compromise that is developed is likely to be both unpopular and unfair.