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Rural schools rebound from state cutbacks

Rural school officials likely know better than anyone how to tighten their belts, but in recent years the belt tightening has probably felt more like a medieval torture device.

“We’ve been through some very difficult financial times, just like every other district has since the GEA was enacted,” said Jamie Farr, superintendent of schools for Phelps-Clifton Springs Central School District. “In our region, when the GEA was enacted we had more money that was taken from us than any of the other schools in the area, and it’s returned to us at a slower rate than any of the other schools in the area.”

The GEA is the gap elimination adjustment. It was first enacted in 2010 as a way for New York to close its budget deficit. Under the GEA, a portion of the state’s funding shortfall was divided among school districts statewide based on a formula, and each district’s state aid was reduced accordingly.

Schools across the state lost nearly $9 billion in aid in the GEA’s first five years of existence, the Rural Schools Association of New York State reports. The GEA has been eliminated for the 2016-2017 school year, but not without taking its toll first.

Funding cuts were felt heavily at Phelps-Clifton Springs, which had to close its middle school and cut more than 60 staff members due to budget constraints. The district also lost some of its sports programs, driver’s education and other significant positions such as a librarian, a resource officer and a nurse.

“We spend a tremendous amount of money in total on public education in New York State. The U.S. in total—federal, state and local money— spends just over $600 billion, and we spend over $60 billion right here in New York,” said David Little, executive director of the Rural Schools Association. “You’d think with that kind of investment that we wouldn’t have a shortage of money.”

But because the state relies so heavily on local funding for schools, rural districts often are the ones that feel the pinch, he explained.

“We are the classic example of having one foot in boiling water and one foot in ice water, and on average we do OK,” he said. “We have some districts that spend over $50,000 per child because they have tremendous local resources to devote to that, and we have some districts that can’t raise $50,000 under the tax cap.”

Some rural school districts have found creative ways to save money. Wheatland-Chili Central School District in recent years has cut costs through job sharing with the Board of Cooperative Education Services, Greece Central School District and Honeoye Falls-Lima Central School District.

“We’re small but we still have all of the work to do, so you have to figure out a way to preserve programs, preserve staffing for students, interscholastic extracurricular activities, make sure we offer advanced placement classes,” said Wheatland-Chili’s superintendent Deborah Leh. “But in order to do those things, you have to figure out ways to consolidate some district office support.”

Additionally, the school found a way to make cuts but continue to offer courses that students wanted, even if they were not offered every semester.

Like other rural districts, Manchester-Shortsville Central School District faced cutbacks when it lost $1.1 million in state aid. Some 30 positions were lost, and the district had to eliminate its modified sports for middle school students.

“Like many of our other underfunded upstate public schools, we had no choice but to make serious reductions, combine more positions, share more services and reduce program offerings,” said Charlene Dehn, Manchester-Shortsville superintendent of schools.

When the state restored the GEA, seven of Manchester-Shortsville’s 30 eliminated positions were brought back and modified sports returned.

“Clearly, the reductions we had to make due to the loss of state aid were devastating to our overall program,” Dehn said. “However, (Manchester-Shortsville) has been able to make a slow recovery due to the large number of teacher and administrator retirements we had over the past several years, the utility cost savings from energy performance projects and the incremental restoration of our GEA.”

Still, rural schools continue to face funding problems.

Dehn said the continual underfunding of schools creates major obstacles for budget planning beyond one year at a time, as well as maintaining programs for children and increasing educational opportunities for students.

To that end, Phelps-Clifton Springs has become heavily dependent on reserve funds, Farr noted.

“When you build a budget you’ve got to have some contingencies,” he said. “We’ve been real conservative, cutting spending midyear, cutting supply budgets, trimming many of our budget lines wherever we could to save a little bit of money.”

Like other schools, underfunding forced Phelps-Clifton Springs to share staffers and office work with other facilities like BOCES. But because the GEA was restored, the school district has been able to build back some programs, including driver’s education and some of its athletic offerings.

Although cutbacks since 2010 have been difficult, schools found ways to ensure students did not suffer as a result, superintendents say.

“I think where it was most detrimental was morale of staff,” Farr said. “For the first year or two they worked so hard to make it seamless for kids, but it started wearing them down.”

Farr said when cutbacks were first announced, board meetings were contentious. Hundreds of people attended meetings held in an auditorium that could accommodate everyone. Since that time, teachers united and made the best of a bad situation.

“We had many teachers going above and beyond, well beyond, their contractual obligation, just because they wanted to offer things for kids,” Farr said. “They really rallied around a difficult time.”

6/10/2016 (c) 2016 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.


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