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In Wednesday's paper, there were three separate stories about budget woes in three of the area's largest school districts.

Except for the name of the school district and the exact dollar figures, the stories were nearly identical in content.

In each story school officials lamented the projected loss of state aid under Gov. David Paterson's proposed budget.

And in each story, officials put much of the blame for their respective district's financial woes on substantial increases in the cost of personnel, notably employee salaries and pensions, which almost always make up the lion's share of municipal and school budgets.

Rising personnel costs in school districts and other government entities aren't news. Every time a contract comes up for negotiation, the employees ultimately get a pay raise. Every time a contract comes up for negotiation, those employees ultimately see a further extension of their lucrative pension benefits. Every time a contract comes up for negotiation, public employees end up paying a smaller percentage of their salaries for health care than most of their counterparts in the private sector.

Usually, even if the governor proposes to freeze or cut aid to school districts, the Legislature comes along and increases aid to help offset the growing cost of personnel. And already, some lawmakers have been making noise about bumping up state aid, even as the state teeters on the precipice of bankruptcy. It is, after all, an election year. And many state lawmakers are beholden to the powerful public employees unions for political contributions.

But this year might be different. There's always been something left in the well. But this year, the well may finally have gone dry. Even if they want to, legislators might not be able to increase state aid. They might be able to reduce the cuts, but they might not be able to restore all the aid that districts have been accustomed to receiving.

So what's the answer for school districts facing rising personnel expenses in the face of declining aid?

How about doing something about the main reason for those rising costs? How about the public employees unions finally make the sacrifice that ordinary taxpayers working in private-sector jobs have been doing for years? How about the unions finally take some responsibility for spiraling school budgets and rising local taxes by doing something about it themselves?

For the next two years, no matter what the contract says, public employees accept a freeze in their pay and benefits.

We're not proposing a reduction. No union would go for that. Just a freeze. Take what you've got and live with it. For two years. After two years, you can go back to getting raises. But just during this rough patch, when taxpayers and the state have no more money to give you, offer to do your part by simply not taking anything extra.

It's not as if they're being asked to do anything unfair. The people paying their salaries aren't getting raises. Many are taking furloughs or accepting reductions in hours or compensation. The people paying their salaries are paying more for their health care, paying more for their retirement.

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We're not asking for you to give up what you've got. We're just asking you to forego any increase. For two years.

Those teachers who say they're truly concerned about the children's education should jump at the chance, since the alternative is their district cutting valuable educational programs, increasing class sizes and laying off teachers.

Those people who got into public service to do some good for their communities should also be willing to give up their raises temporarily.

The well is dry. And the public can't pay anymore.

Asking for nothing more is the least our public employees can do.

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 representative Bill Reynolds.

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