State aid hike won't steer Canton, Potsdam, Norwood-Norfolk schools away from insolvency
Tuesday, April 8, 2014 - 5:39 pm

By JIMMY LAWTON

The boost in state aid offered a nice Band-Aid to local schools but will not solve budget problems faced by Potsdam, Canton and Norwood-Norfolk school districts.

All three districts each received about $300,000 more in operational aid than was proposed in the governor’s budget, and while the increase was welcomed, the superintendents say it won’t steer the schools away from insolvency.

Administrators from each district said they will once again be closing budget gaps by digging to their rapidly diminishing fund balance and reserves.

Canton Central School

Canton-Superintendent Bill Gregory says his district needs to close a $2 million budget gap without cutting positions.

“There is nothing on the chopping block, because there is nothing left to put on the chopping block,” he said.

Gregory says his district has reduced its employee numbers by 25 percent in five years, with the loss of roughly 50 full-time equivalent positions.

He said the school board hopes to close the $2 million shortfall with unexpended fund balance, reserves and limited expenditures for the remainder of the school year, but this will be a one-time solution.

He said using the fund balance is an option that won’t be available in the 2015-2016 budget.

“Hopefully this will carry us through the next school year,” he said. “But what we have feared is coming to pass and next year at this time it will be a full-fledged crisis.”

Canton will receive about $500,000 more in state aid this year compared to the previous school year, but Gregory says it’s still several hundred thousand dollars less than it received in 2008.

Meanwhile, state mandated costs have continued to rise.

Problems are especially difficult at Canton and Potsdam school districts, which are considered “average needs” districts by the state.

Gregory says this distinction means both districts receive about $900,000 per year less each year in aid than other districts in the county. Gregory says this is troubling because the data used to determine that classification is at least 14 years old.

“We really want the state to examine that classification using more current data,” he said.

Potsdam Central School District

In Potsdam, superintendent Patrick Brady says his district will be able to bridge its budget gap with a nearly $3 million contribution from the fund balance, reserves and state aid, but added that such a feat is not sustainable.

“Our goal this year, after five years of staff reductions and program cuts, was to put together a budget that does not lead to staff cuts,” he said. “This year the board asked that we put together some things that we needed and we will actually be adding an elementary teacher.”

Having lost about 50 full-time equivalent positions in the past five years, Brady said the district couldn’t cut more positions even if it wanted too.

“We are at mandate level at elementary and middle school,” he said.

Brady said the state’s decision to increase foundation aid and restore more of the “Gap Elimination Adjustment” funding was a step in the right direction, but said it is not enough to offset rising mandated costs. Although legislators acknowledge problems caused by state mandates and reduced aid, they have failed to fix the issue.

“Many legislators hear from us and from parents. I think the advocacy work done in our schools has made a difference,” he said. “In the end it will probably take some schools going bankrupt before we see a change.”

He said school failures will likely force the legislature to make the difficult decisions that have not had much support to this point, such as reducing mandates and making changes to the aid distribution formula.

“The governor certainly doesn’t understand. If we had his budget, even more schools would be feeling the pain,” he said, adding that Potsdam would not have likely been able to restore an elementary teaching and stay below the state’s tax cap.

Brady said the state sends a confusing message as it pushes schools toward consolidation and offers financing for charter schools, which would actually create more schools.

“Aid is moving in the right direction. It’s appreciated, but there is a long way to go before schools like Potsdam will have what is needed to sustain our staffing and programs,” he said

Brady said the school is receiving about $400,000 less aid than it received in 2008-09, but the state has also increased its mandates. He said the implementation of the Common Core curriculum has been an expensive endeavor, and its cost far exceeded the funding the state provided to implement it.

Norwood-Norfolk Central School

Things are better at Norwood-Norfolk Central School District, but they are far from ideal.

“The increase in aid is better, but it doesn’t fix the problem,” he said.

Superintendent Jamie Cruickshank says his school will receive about $500,000 more than it did in 2011, but that’s still several hundred thousand dollars less than it received in 2008.

He said using the state aid, and about $1.41 million in from the fund balance will leave the district with a gap of about $72,000. He said the school board was still discussing cuts to programs and the reduction of one-fulltime equivalent position, but predicted it would stay within the state’s budget cap.

Cruickshank says his district has cut 23 positions in the past five years through retirements and reorganization, but room to cut will continue to decline.

“My reaction to the state is, they’ve Band-Aided us for another year,” he said. “We’ll take it, but it doesn’t fix the problem. We are going to be in same boat next year.

Cruickshank says the prolonged decline in funding has devastated reserves and fund balance. He said the school is also dealing with rising costs to fuel and this year was hit with massive increases in heating costs.

He said the school is also seeing a spike in enrollment and that a growing student population presents real problems for a district that’s been downsizing.

Like the other superintendents, Cruickshank said state must address the inequalities in its aid distribution to ensure schools can remain solvent.