A new fiscal diet

Published 8:59 pm Friday, February 4, 2011

Suffolk Public Schools could face their hardest year of the recession era this year. School Board members learned this week that there is a $5.3-million gap between what they need in order to carry on business as usual and what they can expect to get in state funds for education. And considering the financial situation the city finds itself in — with less state support and dwindling property values contributing to lower tax collections — it’s a safe bet that there will be less money available from Suffolk taxpayers, as well.

Despite the state funding shortages the city’s school system faced during the past two years, Suffolk Public Schools were fortunate to be able to close the gaps with federal stimulus money, by offering early retirement packages and by not filling positions that were empty, among other budgetary tweaks. There was the pain of not being able to implement new programs, of watching positions go unfilled, of staff members having to take on new duties and, for some administrative staffers, of taking small pay cuts. But the infusion of federal money and a little creative fiscal thinking spared the system the real pain of recession cuts.

That’s not likely to be the case this year, and as we all prepare for the requisite wailing and gnashing of teeth by teachers and parents, it would be appropriate to take a few moments to consider what’s really important in the school system — education.

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It seems obvious, but when it’s deciding where to find the money it needs to operate schools in the coming year, the School Board must remember why children leave home every day and head to those big brick buildings in the first place. They are there to learn. Anything that does not demonstrably benefit that process must be very carefully scrutinized heading into this budget season. And anything unnecessary to the learning and development of young minds and bodies should meet with healthy skepticism and, potentially, the budget knife.

Suffolk taxpayers have had some pretty lean times for the past couple of years. By comparison, the school system’s paucity has been like that of a diner whose favorite restaurant now limits customers to only one trip to the salad bar. This year, with an abbreviated menu to boot, there’s a good chance the school system will have to leave the table still feeling a little bit hungry. Some would say it was time for a diet, anyway.