Monday December 3, 2012

ZEKE WRIGHT

Staff Writer

CAMBRIDGE, N.Y. -- Better collaboration between districts could foster greater academic opportunities -- at a reduced cost -- according to a recently completed study of seven schools in Washington County.

The alternative facing districts may be fiscal insolvency according to the study’s authors.

"This study talks about collaboration and how can we work together," explained Terry Brewer, a project manager for The Capital Area School Development Association (CASDA), a study council affiliated with The University at Albany, State University of New York. Speaking at a public presentation Thursday evening at Hudson Falls Central School, Brewer said each of the districts studied faced individual unique challenges. By working together, he said course offerings could be expanded while containing costs.

The study gives short-term recommendations that begin with the creation of a Collaborative Advisory Committee of superintendents and school board members. That committee would work toward coordinating opportunities like distance or online learning, shared teachers or administrators, or a central business office. "The direction comes from your school district and the boards of education that are involved here," said Brewer. "How you go about managing this really is home directed."

CASDA Director James Butterworth said participating schools were being proactive in seeking solutions.


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"It really doesn’t get done from Albany, it doesn’t get done from Washington -- it gets done by individual school districts," he said.

Jerome Steele, a member of the study team and a past superintendent at Maplewood-Colonie Central School (the last New York district to dissolve, in 2008) said the "most frightening slide" of Thursday’s presentation showed declining enrollment between the seven schools, which have lost more than 1,100 students combined over 10 years.

Through a collaborative or "campus cluster" approach, individual schools retain their identities while pooling resources, either financial or personnel. With a common bell schedule, students from multiple schools can take advantage of unique offerings at other districts, similar to current BOCES classes. As the need arises, individual districts could join particular "clusters" of academic programs or shared administrators -- including new positions not currently held at a particular school, like a director of special education or curriculum development.

The efficiency report began with the Washington-Saratoga-Warren-Hamilton-Essex BOCES seeking a feasibility study of sharing services in targeted programs and operations between districts. Seven districts -- Argyle, Cambridge, Fort Ann, Granville, Hartford, Hudson Falls, and Salem -- agreed to participate in the study which began this past May.

Each district paid $12,000 toward the study. Cambridge Central School board members approved the amount in March.

"Many school districts are running out of options, they’re running out of money, and they’re running out of time," said James Dexter, WSWHE BOCES district superintendent. With reduced state aid, mandated expenses, and now a tax levy limit, Dexter said the crunch was an issue across the state but especially in rural districts with lower property values. He said more schools had turned to relying on their fund balance, which "means one thing. ... They’re spending more than they’re taking in."

"It’s that rainy day fund that you tap into, and unfortunately over the past few years it’s been pouring," said Brewer. Schools in Washington County lost an average in state aid of $1,498 per pupil in 2011-12. The average operating deficit between each district in the study, before use of fund balance, will total roughly $1 million entering 2013-14.

When that gap occurs, Dexter said there were few options available, like reducing programs or cutting staff. "When you’ve already done those options ... many districts will be leaning toward fiscal insolvency." Over the past three years, a combined 130.9 administrative, teacher, and non-instructional positions were eliminated between the seven districts studied by CASDA. None of the seven are currently at ends, according to Dexter, but "there are districts within New York state that, at the end of this year, will be facing fiscal insolvency."

The CASDA study did not project long-term and did not consider mergers or "regional high schools," a current proposal in the state Legislature.

At November’s school board meeting, CCS board member Paul Baker-Porazinski said the study offered excellent advice on how to expand offerings, but "what I was hoping for ... (was an) answer to how we can solve some of these long-term problems," he continued. "Long, long term," Baker-Porazinski said, the regional high school model "ultimately may be the only solution."

The full CASDA report and accompanying slideshow presentation is available online at www.wswheboces.org.

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