Teaching is the essence of education. You'd think that would be obvious to the people who run schools, but it isn't always.
Cost cutting has been necessary at our public schools these last few years as costs rose, state aid diminished and property taxes became too heavy to jack up much more. Those three trends aren't changing, and especially now with the state's new 2 percent cap on tax levy increases, the pressure may get higher than ever this spring when school officials prepare their budgets.
Local districts have made those cuts in these last two budget cycles by shedding dozens of teachers: laying off a bunch, pressuring others to retire and not replacing many retirees. The inevitable result is that, with so many fewer people doing the teaching, the education those schools now offer is inferior to what it was a few years ago. Teachers are spread more thinly, which means less individual attention to students' needs. It may not be much worse - yet - and to a certain degree, when times are tough there's an amount of quality we should be willing to give up. But it'd be the same if the Enterprise shed reporters: We'd end up writing fewer stories, and with less depth - worse journalism, in effect, and that's our core product, our top priority. It's the same with schools and teaching.
Great schools are among this area's biggest selling points. They're still very good, in our judgment, but we don't want them to slip further.
There are other things to cut that don't damage education: technology, for example, or sports, or buildings, or equipment, or administration, or wages and benefits. Unions, like administrators, have to help out and not let faculty be downsized so they can get their raises.
To their credit, local schools made some of these sacrifices before they laid off teachers, but they will have to do more, in big and small ways, or else lay off faculty every year - feeding on their own like cannibals, increasing the ranks of the unemployed and weakening each community's future.
A Wilmington parent this week criticized the Lake Placid school board for buying iPads for its administrators and teachers, and putting new flat-screen monitors around its schools - all worth tens of thousands of dollars. This year the school district eliminated a special education teacher, two teaching assistants and a clerical position, saving $109,253. That may be small change relative to the district's $16.6 million budget, but still, it's a choice - faculty iPads that don't help kids learn over teachers and assistants who do.
Thinking bigger, on Wednesday in this space we reprinted an editorial from the Leader-Herald newspaper of Gloversville, praising the progress of proposed mergers of several small school districts in and around the southern Adirondacks: Wells and Lake Pleasant, Mayfield and Northville, and St. Johnsville and Oppenheim-Ephratah. These are tricky deals that would blend union contracts and bus runs, and possibly close some buildings, but money can be saved without hurting education. Plus, the alternative appears to be unsustainable in these places. Northville was set to raise its tax levy 20.7 percent this year; it cut that hike to 10.8 percent in August.
Our school districts aren't that close to the edge, but we may get there, and it's good to have an example to follow.
It already makes sense for schools up here to merge their district functions regionally - chopping at the top to keep schools open and teachers in the classrooms. Perhaps someone could devise a plan that would keep sports teams and school boards where they are. School boards and superintendents, have discussed this and dismissed it; they don't want to go there. But it'll make more sense as time goes on, and if we get to a crisis stage, wouldn't it be great if some school official could whip out a sensible plan he or she had worked out back when others were expecting the storm to blow over? Now's the time to draft such plans.
Times are tough for schools, but too often district officials still choose extras over education. The generation now in school will probably inherit a harder, more competitive economic world than their parents enjoyed, and it won't matter if their teachers lacked iPads, if they played lacrosse on bumpy old fields or if their superintendents were 50 miles away. What will matter is whether a teacher had time to give individual attention when the student couldn't understand a new concept or needed nudging to excel. That's what we should be paying for, first and foremost.