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The state and schools need to put quality education ahead of having nice buildings

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We’ve published a dozen or so articles over the last month about how St. Lawrence County schools are teetering on the brink of financial and educational insolvency.

Many are saying they doubt they will be able to provide a sound basic education in the immediate future because the state’s inequitable funding formula and limits on property tax increases are forcing districts into a position where they have to cut their budgets even closer to the bone. Fund balances are being depleted. Teaching positions are being eliminated. Enrichment programs are being cut. Opportunities for our children are becoming increasingly more limited.

But if you wander into any of a vast majority of the county’s school buildings, what you see might convince you otherwise. With very few exceptions, our school buildings are palaces.

I’ve never been able to understand why schools don’t even blink when they hit up the state for untold millions of dollars to upgrade facilities that really seem, well, adequate. The Ogdensburg City School District, for example, is in the process of wrapping up a $57 million capital project that includes new athletic fields, improved administrative space and a renovated auditorium, to name just a few of the bells and whistles associated with the project.

I ask you: how useful is a really nice auditorium going to be when the district has to cut music and drama programs to balance its budget? How will new athletic fields serve the district when it has to cut sports programs?

The prevailing attitude by school administrators when it comes to building projects — and the billions of dollars the state makes available for them annually — is that if their district doesn’t get the money, somebody else’s district will. So they apply and receive far more funding for building improvements than any logical person would conclude they actually need.

At the same time, Ogdensburg school officials recently said that they fear the district soon will no longer be able to provide a basic education for students.

There is something really wrong with this situation. I am picking on Ogdensburg, but most of our districts are guilty of the same thing. Many of those currently saying their districts’ education programs are in serious jeopardy have also undertaken multimillion-dollar building projects in the last five to 10 years.

Students and staff need to have safe, sound buildings in which to learn and teach. But they also need to be able to provide the best possible education for children.

The state enables the “if we don’t get it someone else will” school administrator attitude when it comes to building aid by making more building aid money available each year and by being way too generous when it comes to how much money it makes available to districts for building improvements. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in his 2014-2015 Executive Budget increased building aid by 4.28 percent, from approximately $2.722 billion to $2.839 billion. I haven’t seen any published reports about what each house of the state Legislature has proposed for building aid, but I would be shocked if it’s less than what the governor proposed.

Ogdensburg did not need a $57 million overhaul of its buildings. It did need money to expand J.F. Kennedy Elementary School to absorb students displaced by the closure of Lincoln and Sherman elementary schools. The energy efficiency measures included in the project are probably a good thing as well.

But it does not need dressing rooms and more seating for its auditorium. It’s administrators could probably have lived with their previous office spaces. Students could still have played sports on the old athletic fields.

As with all school building projects, however, the state funded 97 percent of the total bill, making it impossible for the school district to reject the idea that it didn’t need all of what the state was willing to pay for. If someone was going to pay 97 percent of the cost of a diamond necklace for you or your wife, you would probably take them up on it regardless of whether it was something you really wanted, let alone needed.

There is no doubt that some schools do need improvements. I know of at least one school — Hammond Central — which does not have air conditioning and probably should. Other schools are probably not as secure as they should be and could use funding for security upgrades. I have read about other schools across the state that have serious structural issues in their buildings.

The state does need to make building aid available, but state officials should be much more choosy about making sure only the districts that truly need it are the ones getting it. There is currently a lot of money going to fix buildings that aren’t really broken while inadequate funding is granted for education programs.

The state needs to get its priorities straight and stop allowing school districts to build palaces around a crumbling education structure.

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