School officials: Don’t be surprised by depleted fund balance

B y Jaime Thomas

Granville school officials are sounding the alarm.

If state aid doesn’t increase, the district will run out of money in two or three years.

Fiscal insolvency is a serious possibility, and Superintendent Mark Bessen and Business Manager Cathy Somich want the public to know.

“We don’t want anyone surprised. We’re telling you what the situation is,” Somich said. The district is beginning its budget process, and officials want the community to be completely aware and involved in the decision making.

Since 2009, the district has been forced to dip into its fund balance as operating costs continue to increase and state aid stays stagnant. Officials have tried to avoid spiking tax rates while maintaining a healthy district, but current trends can only last so long.

“It’s like living off of a savings account with no income,” Bessen said.

Last year officials used more than half-million dollars from the fund balance, they plan to use another $750,000 this school year and Somich projects using another $1.6 million next year. She said the money will be depleted in three years.

No money, no programs

Bessen explained that there are two kinds of solvency: fiscal and education.

As a district that relies heavily on the government for funding—60 percent of revenues come from state aid—Granville officials look years ahead when planning a budget.

“We’re not just looking at one year; we’re looking into the future. There are contract costs, people who may retire, what’s the trend on energy costs or health insurance, maintenance—we’re trying to stay economically solvent,” Bessen said. This means having enough money to keep a school running even at a bare minimum.

Somich said the Comptroller estimated 87 schools out of nearly 700 in the state to be insolvent (Granville is not among them); however, many educators believe that number is much greater.

Bessen described the second important factor—educational solvency—as what programs a district has to make their children competitive as they go into the world.

“Our community had done a good job making sure we’re not just bare bones about meeting the needs of the kids,” he said. “We’ve maintained our business department, technology, music programs, arts, sports, full-day kindergarten. These are all non-mandated programs.”

Should Gov. Cuomo not allot Granville the money it is due, however, cuts will be inevitable. Bessen said the district is already staffed as leanly as possible; non-mandated programs will be the next to go.

“We want to maintain a high level of programming. Costs continue to go up. He said he’d give us 4 percent; in reality he gave us less than a percent. We have to fund original school programs first,” he said.

Somich pointed out that wealthier districts are not suffering nearly as much with budget cuts as poorer, more rural districts.

“It shouldn’t matter where you live to get a sound, basic education, but right now it does,” she said. However, she and Bessen pointed out that Granville’s careful planning has allowed it to stay afloat longer than other similar districts.

“In early budget cuts, districts burned through and became not just fiscally but educationally insolvent,” Bessen said.

The Gap Elimination Adjustment, enacted several years ago aimed to help make up for state deficit; now, the state is operating at a surplus and is still not giving additional aid.

How to help

Though there is no concrete answer for why Cuomo continues to cut funding to the educational system, educators across the state do speculate.

Bessen and Somich said when Cuomo first became governor, he announced a goal to reduce the number of school districts in New York state by the end of his term.

Instead of openly creating county-based, consolidated schools, Bessen sees a slow starvation of aid that will eventually force the change.

“That’s why we want the public involved. As these budgets get tighter and tighter, the public needs to be well aware of the dire straits the government has put us in,” Bessen said.

To that end, he is encouraging the community to get involved in the budget process—he and Somich are appealing to those who care about the future of local students’ educations and to taxpayers who could face double-digit increases down the line.

At the upcoming budget workshops, department heads and district officials will discuss line by line their projected expenses. It is at this time that the public can give input and ask questions.

Bessen and Somich urge community members to send letters or contact representatives such as Betty Little and Dan Stec.

“When they hear from constituents, they listen,” Bessen said. He explained that the superintendents who constantly approach legislature about these concerns are like a single mosquito in a room.

“If all of the sudden there’s a swarm of mosquitoes, they take notice,” he said.

Those interested in sending a letter to a representative can contact Bessen or Somich at 518-642-1234 for an idea of what to write.

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