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Hilltown Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, February 9, 2012

BKW considers sharing services to preserve programs and save money

BERNE — Surviving with a bare-bones contingency budget after two years of defeats at the polls, Berne-Knox-Westerlo is looking at sharing services with other districts as a way to keep taxes in check while maintaining programs.

“You can’t just keep cutting and cutting programs and teachers,” said Richard Umholtz, who co-chairs BKW’s budget advisory committee. “Our students need a good curriculum to compete in a global economy, and you can’t keep raising taxes. You could consider a merger or dissolution, but the easiest and most logical route is shared services.”

Umholtz is worried the district will soon face bankruptcy.

Board member Vasilios Lefkaditis had proposed a committee explore the possibility of sharing services or merging with another district.

Lefkaditis recalled yesterday, “I said, ‘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."

On Monday, the board appointed Lefkaditis and board member Helen Lounsbury to study the possibilities of sharing services, with towns and school districts, and other options.

“My worst fear,” said Lounsbury, who has retired from a long teaching career at BKW, “is the district would be bankrupt and, instead of a consolidation, we’d be split up.”

She concluded, “The school is the heart of the Hilltown community.”

As the governor pushes consolidation, the state will pay for feasibility studies for school districts to merge.

In the meantime, the BKW budget advisory committee is inviting staff, parents, students, and residents to attend a presentation on shared services. The program will begin at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 15, at the high school auditorium.

“We made the recommendation to the school board,” said Umholtz. “Everybody is excited about it. It’s a new, softer approach.”

Cheryl Dudley, superintendent of the Greenville Central School District, is the featured speaker. She leads a district that, like Berne-Knox-Westerlo, is small and rural.

Umholtz described Dudley as “brilliant.” He went on, “Instead of going back to ground zero, we can learn from what already has been done.”

When considering shared services, Dudley told The Enterprise, she has two criteria — it must enhance programming and reduce costs.

Dudley said that Greenville has been sharing special-education services with two other nearby small, rural districts — Cairo-Durham and Windham-Ashland-Jewett. She also said, “We have an administrative share with the director of personnel services.”

At the same time, Greenville is establishing in-house programming for special-education students. “They’re our most fragile children and benefit from being in their home district or home county,” said Dudley.

Placing special-needs students in outside programs often involves extensive travel, she said, which is costly for the district and draining for the students.

She conceded, “Some needs are so specialized, we can’t supply them.”

Returning students, when possible, to their home district or home county, she said, allows them to “participate in a school campus life.”

Dudley said that savings in administrative costs for the three districts is $100,000 a year. By returning students to campus, tuition costs decreased by $1.4 million for Greenville, she said.

Greenville is currently looking at working with the Board of Cooperative Educational Services for a central business office. “Many times,” she said, “smaller districts are stepping stones for business administrators. When they leave, out the door goes all the institutional knowledge.”

While many BOCES services are cost effective, Dudley said, “Many were put in place by the legislature in the 1970s and haven’t been updated.”

She gave as an example the aid districts get for sharing personnel. “You only receive aid on the first $30,000,” she said, “and, if you have that person just two days a week, you get just $12,000 in aid…The position may cost $75,000.”

Greenville, which has between 1,300 and 1,400 students, has a budget this year of $26 million. “It’s been difficult,” said Dudley of the financial squeeze. “And next year is going to be worse,” she said, citing the inequities in state funding.

“The concept of economy of scale has to be addressed in New York State,” she said. “There are ways of doing that while maintaining a sense of community. It requires a paradigm shift in the way of doing things. If you look at larger school districts, they have more opportunities for students because they can take advantage of the economy of scale.”

Dudley concluded, “Districts in New York are facing the largest challenge they ever have. In spite of the rhetoric, there are people sincerely trying to find solutions. It will require collaboration and cooperation rather than competition. We have to find solutions, not point fingers.”

Umholtz concluded, “We need to consider other ways of doing business — doing this differently with better results as opposed to the clich? of doing more with less.”

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

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