GCSD should get bids more often for contracted services and non-instructional BOCES services could be had more cheaply

To the Editor:

I’ve noticed the recent strong push by school boards and school administrators for citizen advocacy with New York State legislators on state aid to education. As a long-time fan of citizen advocacy, I’ve been happy to see that a lot of folks have taken up the cause of seeking to have an inequitable system receiving a much-needed overhaul.

My own local legislators, Assemblywoman Patricia Fahy and Senator Cecilia Tkaczyk, have certainly had an earful from me on the subject, and, since both have backgrounds as school board members, I know that they have some real concerns about the future of education in New York State.

I also hope that, as people become more focused and engaged, they will start asking some of their own reasonable and legitimate questions. I have found myself returning, as this year’s Guilderland budget takes shape, to a couple of issues that have consistently troubled me over the years.

The first is the matter of obtaining periodic bids for contracted services. This, to me, is a matter of simple practical financial management.

I suspect that most of us periodically check out the price our families pay for things like phone/Internet/cable services, trash collection, banking fees, auto and homeowners’ insurance against the fees that alternative providers might charge. I suspect that many folks have found, as I have, that a little periodic research into these subjects often provides a pleasant payback. It’s not as simple as those gecko commercials make it out to be, but it certainly isn’t difficult.

It does not appear, however, that the Guilderland School District feels the need to do this sort of checking very frequently. As one example, the price the district pays for insurance (a sum in excess of $250,000 in the current budget cycle) has not been put out for competitive bids in five years. This is an exercise that may not need to be undertaken annually, but I think that it is past time for a fresh look at this and at a good number of other contracted services.

The other matter is one that has bugged me, and has caused me to speak out at school board meetings, meetings of the (defunct) Citizens’ Budget Advisory Committee, and in the pages of The Enterprise, is the amount of money that the Guilderland School District (and almost every other district in New York) spends on non-instructional services provided by the Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES). Non-instructional services provided by BOCES include, among other things, items such as data processing services and “public information” services such as the production of the Guilderland School District’s periodic newsletters.

For years now, I have contended that the school district could do the things currently contracted with BOCES at a lower cost than what is now being paid. I have heard over that time from a large number of current and now-retired school board members and administrators that, because school districts receive state aid for services purchased from BOCES, the net cost to the district is lower if BOCES is used, and that the district has to use BOCES in order to provide services at the lowest cost to Guilderland taxpayers.

I’ve never found this answer satisfactory, since the state aid that subsidizes the cost of BOCES services is paid for by the state’s taxpayers, including me and the other residents of the Guilderland School District. The fact that the New York State system for allocating aid has actively promoted inefficiency by subsidizing BOCES costs has always stuck in my craw, and will stick in my craw until the system is overhauled.

It is also something I have expressed my concern about to my New York State legislators, and represents an advocacy item that I, as an ordinary citizen, can work on without needing a script provided by the school district.

I would add that the views I have held on the cost of BOCES services were validated by an audit report issued by the Office of the New York State Comptroller entitled “Cost-Effectiveness of BOCES Non-Instructional Services,” which reaches the same conclusion I reached over such costs over 20 years ago. It’s nice, I suppose, to have your conclusions validated, but it’s pretty depressing in these difficult economic times to see wasteful spending practices ongoing, and even subsidized with taxpayer funds, for decades.

So, while I support and encourage the efforts of our local schools to advocate in favor of our children and against injustices in the basic state aid formula, I would urge our school districts across the state to be mindful of the need to be just as vigilant in watching their own financial affairs as they would like New York State to be.

Sad to say, there is much that needs to be done on both fronts.

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