State officials seem to have no plan for dealing with bankrupt school districts, viewed as likely soon in North Country
Friday, January 4, 2013 - 5:28 pm

By CRAIG FREILICH

CANTON -- Even though 25 percent of North County school superintendents predict their districts will be financially bankrupt within two years, state officials apparently don’t know how they would deal with such a situation.

At a meeting Thursday attended by about 100 parents and educators, Sen. Patty Ritchie (R-Heuvelton) said she tried to find out what will happen if school districts start dropping off their own “fiscal cliffs” or declaring bankruptcy if they find themselves without enough cash to pay the bills.

“I asked the SED (state Education Department) that, and their answer was, ‘We don’t know,’” Sen Ritchie said. “I know that sounds terrible, but that’s the response I got.”

Due to state aid cutbacks and a formula that has penalized some of the poorest and smallest school districts such as those in St. Lawrence County, one-quarter of North Country superintendents in a survey late last year predicted bankruptcy for their districts. For details view story at northcountrynow.com/news/north-country-public-schools-under-siege-superintendents-fear-financial-and-educational-insolve

At Thursday’s meeting at Canton Central School, parents, teachers and school administrators impressed upon state legislators the importance of getting some financial help from the state for schools in St. Lawrence County.

“This is really just a chance to get all of our area representatives together to hear what we have to say,” said School Board President Barbara Beekman of the meeting at Canton Central School that attracted about 100.

Other legislators at the meeting included Assembly members Addie Russell (D-Theresa) and Marc Butler (R-Newport). All three agreed that schools that are less well off, such as those in many rural districts upstate, are at a tipping point.

More cuts in aid could send them into financial bankruptcy and render them incapable of fulfilling their mission of educating young people to a worthwhile standard they said.

But the realities of governing in a state as large and diverse as New York tempers hopes of getting legislation approved this year that would shift some aid money to schools in the North Country from suburban schools that have not been forced to cut staff and programs to any significant degree, as schools here have.

The meeting was a continuation of efforts sparked by Canton parents last year to raise an alarm about the difficult straits Canton and other St. Lawrence County school districts are facing amid diminishing state aid.

In addition, the formula used to dispense state funds to New York’s 700 school districts has actually left some of the neediest districts with proportionately less aid than many suburban districts, according to those who have studied the issue closely, including Assemblywoman Russell.

“The information we gather here we’ll bring back to Albany,” said Butler, who observed that getting attention for the issue has been made more difficult by state legislators of both parties being “transfixed with the drama in Washington.”

There is no lack of drama in Albany, as lawmakers and the governor wait to see what the federal government will actually do to help downstate areas that were ravaged by “superstorm” Sandy in late October. What happens with that will have an affect on the attention and money the state can afford to give the schools, a point made by 47th District Sen. Joe Griffo last month.

Griffo, who was not at the Canton but was attending a similar meeting with Assemblyman Ken Blankenbush in Oswego, said that the funding the federal government can give New York to help cover the expenses of Hurricane Sandy will also play a large part in the overall spending picture that will emerge from Albany.

“Before we make those decisions on what to do and how, we have to determine the impact of those measures.

“But we have to address the school aid formula issue fairly and equitably,” Griffo said.

“I think we all realize this is a very important year to make meaningful change,” said Russell.

“The formula has to be changed and we have to make it happen this year,” said Butler.

“But we can’t just go out and say ‘Spend Money.’ We can’t spend much more, but we can reallocate it,” Russell said.

The panel said if anything significant is going to happen to help North Country schools this year, it has to be worked out in the next state budget, the process for which begins with the governor’s “state of the state” address on Wednesday. Cuomo will lay out his agenda for the year, followed by his formal budget proposal, and cannot wait for bills to pass both houses and get the governor’s signature later in the session.