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They're finally starting to get it.

It's finally starting to sink in.

Area school budgets are taking shape, and for the first time in memory, it appears as if school boards and superintendents are finally heeding the thunder clouds that have been on the horizon for years. Districts that either pooh-poohed the state's financial situation or kept their fingers crossed are finally starting to face the difficult decisions that must be made. They're finally asking hard questions about budget proposals. They're finally starting to question the wisdom of those generous teacher contracts they signed, and they're starting to mention the need for union concessions - concessions they never even would have had the nerve to utter in public before.

Not all districts have entered the reality zone just yet. But some have, and the others had better soon follow.

Let's start with Queensbury, where the school board has been living in a budget bubble for years. In the past, board members made little effort to control spending or take a tough stand in contract talks, comforted in the knowledge that state aid and tourist dollars would keep the district gliding along. Whenever there was a board member or two who challenged spending increases or the value of contracts, they were quickly shot down and labeled a malcontent.

But the tone at last week's Queensbury board meeting was, by several accounts, astonishing by the nature of the questions being asked by board members. In the past, a 1.71 percent spending increase and a zero percent tax increase in the tax levy would have been labeled a fiscal victory. (They would have ignored the fact that spending is projected to increase $902,000.) Not only would no one have challenged the increase, they would have injured themselves patting each other on the back.

But last Tuesday, it was a different board sitting up there. Board members - even those known for supporting spending increases - were asking tough questions about that $902,000 increase. The were saying that even $800,000 in previous cuts were not enough and that they needed to see more reductions before they could support the budget. Some anti-tax advocates about fell out of their folding chairs at the line of questioning. Instead of dismissing concerns about the impact of rising taxes on taxpayers, this school board made taxpayers the focal point of their efforts.

Good for them. But imagine how much better off the district

would have been had the board adopted this stance before the crisis hit.

In Glens Falls, where the district is facing a 17 percent hike in the tax levy, district Superintendent Thomas McGowan went where no superintendent dares to go, suggesting that the district might have to close a neighborhood elementary school in order to zip up a budget gap. No one ever wants those neighborhood schools to close, and to do so would be incredibly unpopular. Was Mr. McGowan just using that as a way to get the public's attention and perhaps wrangle some concessions from teachers' unions? Maybe. But only a crisis of epic proportions would prompt a superintendent to even play that card. He gets it. And now his community is starting to get it, too.

In Fort Ann and Hadley-Luzerne, board members there are starting to seek concessions from unions on costly past agreements. In South Glens Falls, a school board member even had the courage to raise at a public meeting the prospect of a pay freeze, a position unions have been loathe to give in on. You only bring that up if you've got no other choice. It shows you where they are.

Even some in the state Legislature are getting the message, and in doing so are helping school districts find the political courage to demand concessions from unions on contracts. Some members of the Democratic majority in the Assembly, known particularly for kissing up to the teachers' unions, have proposed to the all-powerful New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) union that school districts could save more than $1 billion and avert layoffs and program cuts if the unions would agree to freeze their pay. To be that bold with a major player like NYSUT can only mean that lawmakers now fear the wrath of taxpayers more than they fear the unions.

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Not everyone's getting the message. Some districts have given up cutting and are going to the May budget vote with double-digit tax hikes, perhaps counting on the fact that we don't burn people at the stake anymore.

There is still plenty more work to be done, and plenty of more pain to be felt, before school districts rein in spending enough to help taxpayers weather the financial storm.

To paraphrase Star Trek, districts are now boldly going where no school district has gone before; they're making serious, difficult decisions in order to help taxpayers. Now let's hope we all live long enough to prosper from it.

Local editorials represent the opinion of The Post-Star editorial board, which consists of Publisher Rick Emanuel, Editor Ken Tingley, Editorial Page Editor Mark Mahoney and citizen member Roger Guglielmo.

 

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