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Hilltown Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, February 23, 2012

BKW considers sharing services, consolidation

By Zach Simeone

BERNE — The Berne-Knox-Westerlo School District is looking at options for shared services with other school districts and municipalities, and may participate in a feasibility study that will explore the potential benefits, and detriments, of consolidation with one or more nearby districts.

BKW has been operating on a contingency budget for the last two school years, after the district’s proposals were defeated at the polls. Under the new state law capping the tax levy, if a budget is voted down twice, and the district defaults to a contingency budget, there can be no tax increase, unlike with previous contingency plans.

“The contingency budget rules for expenditures would still be in effect; that hasn’t changed,” said Kevin Callagy, the district’s business official. “However, if a school district has to go to contingency budget, the tax levy can be no more than what it was the previous year.” Consequently, BKW is looking to save where it can.

“What ended up happening is, Cobleskill-Richmondville, Schoharie, and Middleburgh had all decided to move forward in pursuit of a grant to fund the study,” Superintendent Paul Dorward told The Enterprise of other local rural districts. “After those three districts made the decision to pursue that, they extended an invitation to BKW, Duanesburg, and Jefferson. My understanding is, in all of those locations, they’ve authorized their superintendents to move forward in getting the grant application taken care of. That’s step number one.”

The governor has pushed consolidation, and state funding is available for studies.

At its meeting on Monday, Feb. 27, the school board will get a budgeting update from Callagy.

Last week, the school heard a presentation from Cheryl Dudley, superintendent of the Greenville Central School District, about some of the potential benefits of sharing services, she told the audience that, though Greenville did not get grant funding for its study on the feasibility of consolidating, she urges BKW to time its study with the release of those funds, should the district go through with it.

“I think this district is to be complimented for the work it’s doing with Schoharie, for the shared-transportation piece,” Dudley said, referring to the BKW sharing its transportation director with the Schoharie Central School District, which Callagy said last year would bring in a $47,000 payment from Schoharie.

“Though the reasons may have been induced by the power of Hurricane Irene, it’s my understanding that this is working very well,” Dudley said, “and it’s certainly a good start.”

Dudley also told the crowd that, through sharing a pupil personnel services director with the Cairo-Durham and Windham-Ashland-Jewett for the last two years, each district has saved between $33,000 and $34,000 a year, meaning a total savings of $100,000 annually for the three districts.

She added that many districts in Questar III, a division of the New York State Board of Cooperative Educational Services that includes BKW, are looking at the potential savings in sharing a central business office, as well as costs for transporting special-education students off campus.

“The children deserve the education,” Dudley said, “but the cost of delivery is brutal.”

A committee to research sharing?

At a meeting earlier this month, the school board voted to form a sub-committee, consisting of board members Helen Lounsbury and Vasilios Lefkaditis, to look for areas where services might be shared with a local municipality, either in the Hilltowns or elsewhere, or with other school districts.

While Lefkaditis had pushed for the formation of a full committee that would research and discuss the possibilities for shared services, a sub-committee was formed instead. Dorward said last week that the administration is already looking, and referred to a vote by the school board last spring that authorized Dorward to enter into an inter-municipal agreement with Schoharie Central Schools to share a transportation director.

“The gist of the conversation was, they didn’t want to have overlap,” Dorward said last week of the formation of the new sub-committee. “Well, maybe the way to avoid that would be, if Helen and Vas have an idea, they’d run it by Kevin [Callagy] first to make sure it wasn’t something that we were already working on, or someone we were already talking to.”

Lefkaditis told The Enterprise, “We need to reach out to everyone and see where we can save money — reach out to town boards; reach out to schools; reach out to anyone in any municipality available, to see where we could share services. It could be mechanics, transportation, fuel, storage, but we’ve got to look to see what we can find.”

Dorward attended a meeting in Voorheesville earlier this month where officials from local districts discussed the propriety of sharing services.

“We ended up breaking into groups: One group looked at athletics; one looked at transportation; one looked at academics; and the idea was to have conversations around the idea of, are there things we could be doing in common?” said Dorward. “One of the things we talked about was shared transportation facilities, or ways in which to minimize costs in that area; possibilities of shared business-office-type setups.”

Update on aid

Governor Andrew Cuomo’s proposed budget includes an $800 million increase to aid to schools, a third of which goes to competitive efficiency grants; a third to formula-based aid; and the rest to be shared by about 700 districts across the state.

BKW, he said, is expected to get a 2.6-percent increase in its foundation aid.

“Really, they reduced what they were cutting with that gap elimination — that’s where the difference was,” said Callagy, adding that he tends to break the state aid down into three pieces.

“First, it’s the net foundation aid, which has the foundation aid, minus what they’ve subtracted now over the last few years,” he said. “That’s been the mechanism: the gap elimination, where they’re cutting foundation aid. But then, remember that we’ve had that Federal Education Jobs [Fund] money, which we put off using, and we’re using that $384,000 this year to offset the loss of aid from the state. So, when you factor in that we won’t have that money next year, when I’m looking at my net foundation aid numbers, it’s $4,495,000. With the governor’s proposition, our net foundation aid will be $4,418,000.”

Second, he looks at expense-driven aid, which includes BOCES costs, special education, high-cost-excess-cost, and transportation aid.

“We’re looking at about a $200,000 decrease, and most of that $200,000 is because we have a decrease in our BOCES aid, and a decrease in our transportation aid,” Callagy said. “Both of those were expected, because we’ve reduced our BOCES services over the past two years, so we’re going to get less aid back, and we’ve been able to make reductions in our transportation costs, and, again, we’ll get less aid back because of that.”

Finally, he looks at building aid.

“Our building aid is going from $1.6 million to just under $1.2 million,” Callagy said. “Most of that is because, for this current year, the way the state funds our capital project, we got an extra half-payment this year that really should have come to us in 2009-10. But, they paid it on July 1, so it becomes some of this year’s money. So, there’s an extra half-year of payment in there. But that’s really assigned to our debt; it’s not something we would be using for program and things like that.”

Callagy also said that he will be looking into competitive efficiency grants, also created in the governor’s budget, though, as of last week, he did not know the criteria for obtaining these grants, or when the application process would start.

“My understanding is, they’re close…but I’ve been hearing that for the last month,” Callagy said. “So, it might be that [the State Education Department] is in talks with the governor’s office as to the final touches on what these grants will be.”

A new, multi-step formula determines where a district’s tax-levy increase must be capped.

“The legislation allows for certain exemptions that school districts can add to cover increase costs, like payments to retirement systems, increases in capital debt,” callagy said. “So, there’s a formula for that.”

The coming months will continue to shape the budget for the 2012-13 school year.

“The governor holding back money for the competitive grants was certainly a concern,” Callagy concluded. “Our gap elimination number is a $1.6 million reduction from what our aid was three years ago. Because of what has been cut over the last couple years, we were certainly hoping that, if there was going to be a 4-percent increase, that money would go to helping offset the cuts, but I guess we’ll just do the best we can with what we’ve got.”

Tech Valley

The board is also discussing the economic impact of increasing the number of students being sent to Tech Valley High School in Troy, which emphasizes hands-on and project-based programs, to serve as models for area schools.

According to the district’s most recent New York State School Report Card, in the 2008-09 school year, BKW spent $10,789 per student in general education, and $20,523 per student for special education; close to 20 percent of BKW’s students are classified as special education.

While sending a student to Tech Valley High School costs $12,000 per student, Callagy estimated at the board’s Feb. 6 meeting that 35 percent of that amount is covered by aid, leaving about $4,200 to be covered by the district per Tech Valley student.

Dorward pointed out that the program initially cost the school $18,000 per student.

Eighth-grader Alex Fenoff told the board that she is interested in attending Tech Valley High School next year, and hopes the board will continue to send students there.

With dreams of being a veterinarian, Fenoff told the board that she hopes to attend Cornell University, and that she thinks Tech Valley’s project-based learning would best prepare her for her eventual studies there, and make her a more attractive candidate for admission.

Hunter Fortuin, a BKW junior who has been enrolled at Tech Valley since he entered high school, echoed Fenoff’s support of the program, and spoke to the benefits he has reaped through his classes there.

“It is definitely an amazing program,” Fortuin told the board. “Before I went there, I can honestly say I would not be able to just come up here, without a script in my hand to read to you guys; now I’m comfortable presenting to just about anyone.”

He went on, “It really shows you where you can improve as a person, improve as a scholar. It lets you learn for yourself. So, it’s not, you’re sitting there being taught lecture style; you’re being taught in projects for the real world.”

He recalled his participation in a project during his freshman year at Tech Valley, in which the class took samples from the Husdon River to test the water for pollutants.

Said school board President Carolyn Anderson, “In a sense, you’re kind of preaching to the choir.”

School board member Lefkaditis asked what the board thought of increasing the number of students sent to Tech Valley, and eliminating a staff member, if it were to balance out financially, and there were enough interest from students.

“This is the second or third person that we’ve heard speak from Tech Valley, and these kids are calmer and cooler than I ever was — and I speak publicly all the time, so that says something,” said Lefkaditis, referring to Fortuin. “Maybe we could send 10 or 15 [students], and cut a position here, and it’d be six of one, half a dozen of the other. Has that even been discussed as an option?”

Board member Maureen Sikule was concerned about how eliminating a teacher would affect class sizes, but Lefkaditis asserted that sending a class-worth of students would eliminate that concern.

“I’d like to see somebody massage the numbers; maybe we could make it work,” Lefkaditis said.

Board member Lounsbury added that there were aspects of the district’s arrangement with Tech Valley that have not been fulfilled.

“Part of what was attractive about this was that the Tech Valley school was supposed to be also providing training for our teachers to learn how to integrate some of these models into their classrooms,” said Lounsbury. “I don’t know how much of that has happened.”

Dorward said that, in his opinion, that “hasn’t been made very clear.” He added that secondary Principal Thomas McGurl would be visiting Tech Valley on Feb. 28 to tour the school, and that this might be discussed then.

Lefkaditis asked, “Why would Tech Valley render themselves obsolete by teaching our teachers to do what they do?”

Lounsbury and Dorward told him that this was part of the school’s original mission.

Sikule concluded by vouching for BKW’s own academic program.

“With the Advanced Placement classes that we have, with the program that we have, we have actually sent two students, that I personally know of, to Cornell University, for veterinary medicine,” Sikule said. “That’s in the last five years, and none of them went to New Visions, or Tech Valley, or any of that. So, I am going to say that it is possible to get there from here.”

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