Districting eyeing program cuts

T he Whitehall school district could one day face educational insolvency if increases in expenses continue to outpace state aid.

According to a survey conducted by the Council of School Superintendents, more than half of New York’s school districts anticipate reaching a point within the next four years where they will be unable to provide students with an adequate education. The problem is especially acute in rural districts like Whitehall, where officials anticipate having to cut some of the programs they offer students.

“We’re going to have to look at programs this year and we’ll have to make more staff cuts,” said James Watson, Whitehall Superintendent. “It’s going to be another year of hard decisions.”

Over the last three years, the district has cut $2 million in expenses and eliminated or reduced dozens of positions, and to date has been able to preserve most of its programs.

But those cuts have left very little wiggle room. Staffing at both schools is stretched thin—the elementary school has had to operate under a part-time principal this year—and officials have said on countless occasions that staff members “will have to do more with less.”

“You get to a certain point where you can’t cut any more staff,” Watson said.

That leaves the district with little choice but to cut programs. Administrators say it’s too early in the process to identify specific programs that may be considered for elimination, but they will likely start by targeting programs that affect the fewest number of students.

Watson said the district’s credibility could be threatened if it has to reduce the programs it offers students.

Unfortunately, the problems facing Whitehall are by no means unique. More than half of the superintendents say their district’s financial condition is worse or significantly worse this year than it was a year ago. Only 15 percent of superintendents said they did not foresee their districts threatened by insolvency in the future.

“Whitehall isn’t any different than any other rural school district. The choices we have to make as small, rural districts are so much more dramatic than larger districts.”

The cause of school leaders’ concerns is multi-faceted.

One of the biggest problems has been an increase in pension costs and health benefits and a corresponding decline in state and federal aid.

According to former Whitehall Business manager Jodi Bradshaw, the total reduction in state and federal aid the district received from the 2008-09 school year to present, is $5.2 million.

The contributions the district makes to the teachers retirement system is set to increase 4 to 5 percent this year alone and that doesn’t take into consideration corresponding increases in salary which pushes those projected increases even higher.

Those problems are further exacerbated by the fact that schools rely on property taxes for revenue and the state has capped tax increases at 2 percent (districts can override the cap but it requires a 60 percent majority from voters).

“We can’t maintain the increases in health insurance costs and retirement benefits and live within the 2 percent tax cap,” Watson said.

Those factors have caused many districts, Whitehall including, to dip into their fund balances and reserves.

Bradshaw said Whitehall has been very fortunate in its ability to maintain its fund balance, which as of the beginning of the school year was $538,000, approximately 4 percent of the district’s $13.5 million budget. However, the district’s reserves have been “significantly depleted over the last two years.”

“We’ve saved for a rainy day but it’s been raining for three years,” Watson said.

Bradshaw said the district hasn’t done any long term forecasting to determine to how long it can remain financial viable and says the district is in better shape than others, but admitted officials can only sustain the status quo for so long.

And it’s doubtful, at least in the short term, that the state will lend any assistance. Governor Andrew Cuomo has said mandate relief isn’t coming and Watson said he met with several local officials last week, including Senator Betty Little, assemblymen Dan Stec and Tony Jordan and the message they delivered was it’s not going to get any better.

“We’re politically outnumbered by the people downstate,” Watson said. “Nothing is going to change in the state until parents and members of the community become advocates. I’ve written letters but it’s just one person. With politicians, volume counts.”

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