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Rural school woes warn of big problems for all

Bloomfield Central School District does not have a pool-nor does it have lights above its soccer field. But it does have Advanced Placement courses and an International Baccalaureate program.

As Superintendent Michael Midey says, the district cannot have everything.
 
Contending with a number of factors including changes in state aid, rural school districts like Bloomfield, in Ontario County, have been increasingly forced into difficult decisions in recent years, Midey says.
 
While a declining population and shrinking state funding are challenging for all public schools, rural districts have felt it the longest.
 
"I think we’re seeing two levels of education in New York," Midey says. "There are the haves and have-nots. The school districts that haven’t been hit as hard-the ones that have a vast amount of property tax wealth and can fund everything and anything they want-have been able to maintain, but districts not doing as well have had to cut APs or International Baccalaureate programs."
 
As they confront the fiscal difficulties, smaller and rural school districts are something of a canary in the coal mine for the entire state, critics warn. State funding cuts that have been felt strongly by these districts will soon cause similar problems even for larger and wealthier districts.
 
Midey blames the "gap elimination adjustment," a deduction in state funding introduced in the 2010-11 fiscal year to help close the state’s budget gap. Legislation divides the shortfall among all school districts, but critics say it has been apportioned unfairly.
 
The situation ends up forcing tough decisions. While Bloomfield has maintained academic programs, it has cut 33 employees in five years through a combination of attrition and layoffs. Maintaining academic programs and standards means taking away in other areas, Midey says.
 
"We don’t have a swimming pool, and we don’t have lights on our soccer field or turf because we choose to spend that money on academics," he says.
 
The issue elicits strong emotions from district leaders and school advocates. Organizations like the Monroe County School Boards Association have started a campaign for the state to reduce the mandates it has placed on districts, and some advocate more mergers between small districts.
 
Though Midey admits a number of factors contribute to the problem, including a shrinking number of students, he says the effects of funding reductions seem to fall hardest on districts like his.
 
"The level of education my students get should be equal to everyone else in New York State," he says. "Your education should not depend on your ZIP code."
 
Some districts have sought relief through consolidations, but this can be costly and time-consuming and is not practical for districts that are spread out over large areas, says Jody Siegle, executive director of the MCSBA.
 
In Monroe County the smaller districts have been able to maintain programs, as Bloomfield has, but across the state many districts are at risk, Siegle says.
 
"More than half of the districts in the state have less than a couple thousand students," she says. "It hasn’t affected us much yet, but we’re aware that in the counties surrounding Monroe there are regions where you have very small districts and small populations facing huge challenges of maintaining academic programs that provide what we want students to learn."
 
Districts forced into these cuts have already felt the consequences, Siegle notes. She tells of a small rural district to the east of the Rochester area that cut back on academic offerings. A few years ago, the school’s valedictorian applied to SUNY College at Geneseo but was turned away because the high school coursework lacked the necessary academic rigor, she says.
 
"For smaller districts, the mandated costs are rising and the only way to cover the fixed costs is to cut back on things like AP programs that are really important for students to be prepared for college," Siegle says. "But we’re already seeing how devastating that can be for students."
 
The New York State School Boards Association has recognized the problems facing smaller and rural districts for years. In 2011 the organization held a Rural Schools Summit specifically to address the issue. This summit recognized that changes to state funding formulas, including the gap elimination adjustment, fell hard on these districts.
 
The association, which opposes state mandates, argued that funding changes directed at rural districts are a "financial burden." The gap elimination adjustment also fails to recognize the depths of poverty in many districts, the association contends.
 
"When school aid increased, rural districts shared less of the revenue-despite the formula indicating that their lack of wealth and local tax base would indicate otherwise," said David Little, NYSSBA’s director of governmental relations. "When state aid decreased, the cuts came disproportionately hard on rural schools."
 
The problem is not isolated to a few districts, Siegle warns. If financial pressures facing all districts across the state are not relieved, the same fiscal difficulties will soon migrate into suburban and wealthier districts.
 
"When I look out here from the middle of Monroe County and look at the issues of educational insolvency and fiscal sustainability, I feel like in the distance I see a forest fire raging," she says. "I know it’s coming for us too if things don’t change." n

7/12/13 Schools Report Card (c) 2013 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email [email protected]

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