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April 12, 2012

In These Otsego Hills: CCS balancing act ... side two

— Last week we shared a number of activities in which students at CCS can participate. We thought it was an impressive, if not overwhelming, list. And we are indeed pleased that the young people of our area have these opportunities. However, we think it is also important to keep in mind that these undertakings do have a cost associated with them. They are not free. In fact there are, no doubt, those who would say they do not come cheap.

In response to that comment, we decided we might once again take a look at how the cost of education, as well as the number of students, at CCS has changed over the past 10 years In 2001-02, the school had 1,272 students, the budget was $12,462,355 and the tax levy was $6,923,311.

In 2012-13, the school anticipates having 884 students, the proposed budget is $16,772,080 and the proposed tax levy is $10,702,711.

In 2001-02, property taxes comprised 55.6 percent of the school’s revenue, state aid was 39.9 percent and 4.5 percent was listed as other.

In 2012-13, proposed property taxes would comprise 64 percent of the school’s revenue, state aid would be 29 percent, while 7 percent would be other.

Thus, in this time frame, the number of students has declined 30.5 percent, the budget has gone up 34.1 percent and the tax levy has gone up 54.7 percent. Yet, according to the online inflation calculator, from 2001 to 2012, inflation has gone up only 28.5 percent.

In addition, it should be noted that for the 2001-02 budget, the school was able to transfer $250,000, or  2.5 percent of the budget,from the undesignated fund balance. For the 2012-13 budget, the school is proposing transferring $786,975, or 4.7 percent of the budget, from the undesignated fund balance.

It would seem that these changes in both the budget and the student population, as well as the school’s proposed 2012-13 budget, present an opportunity for musing about why the school’s finances are what they are.

For example, while discussing these numbers with a good friend, the conversation lead quickly to a number of questions. As a taxpayer, what is most troubling about these figures? Are the tax dollars being spent wisely? How long can this financial situation at the school continue? Will the  situation improve or simplycontinue to deteriorate?

Can we afford more of the same? Should the school be spending upwards of $20,000 per student each year? Is it realistic to think, as do some residents of the district, that the school should spend whatever?

And while we think these are all good questions, they were but the beginning of our pondering on the issue of the cost of educations at CCS. We do know that one of the big problems with state aid for CCS is the fact that the district is considered to be a wealthy district. The total property value of the district is just over  $1 billion, not an insubstantialsum. We have also learned that the income wealth of the district, which is taken from 2008, the most recent year for which there is data, is pegged at $183,000,109. We note this is a reduction from the 2007 total income of the district of $215,000,000, a fact which does make us wonder what the actual total income of the district is currently.

And while it would seem that, given the numbers, CCS is indeed a wealthy district.

However, that designation is somewhat problematic as there are a number of residents of the district who have owned their property for years who would not be able to purchase their property today. And the income wealth is certainly not distributed equally among district residents.

Therefore, there are a number of residents who are property rich but income poor. And they are indeed struggling to pay their school taxes, even though they may be eligible for the enhanced STAR program.

Beyond that, we have to wonder how the combination of high property values and high school taxes affect the ability for some young families with children to live in the district? Also, does the seemingly small number of year around rental properties figure into the decline in the student population?

We also are puzzled, given the fact that the proposed student population will decline from 937 this year to 884 next year, the overall school budget for the upcoming year is being reduced by less than $200,000. Somehow we thought, given not only the reduction in student population, but also the cut of 4.5 FTE faculty members, there might be a greater savings realized than there appears to be.

And finally, we wonder how it is possible to have had $714,976 to transfer from the reserve fund into the 2011-12 budget and to now have an additional $786,975 to transfer from that fund to the 2012-13 budget. We can but conclude that the process of estimating the school’s income and spending simply must be way off the mark. Can we hope that going forward, the budget might be more realistic?

We must admit that we have no answers to these questions. In fact, we don’t know if anyone does. But we do feel that the educational system that we have long known at CCS is changing. In light of the economic realities, it seems there is a definite trend toward sharing services with other districts. In the past we have seen sharing of participation in sports and it now seems the district is sharing a cafeteria manager with Milford. Also the district has purchased supplies through our BOCES. And now, as we learned at a recent school board meeting, the school’s bread bid is going through the Binghamton BOCES.

And we suspect, given the economics, the concept of shared services will continue.

What we do not know is whether, by enacting the 2 percent property tax cap, the state is pushing smaller, rural schools into consolidation with neighboring districts. No doubt time will tell.

It seems we are indeed in uncertain times in terms of school funding. The state aid keeps dropping and property taxes keep rising. It is a turn of events which we do not like to see and which leaves all of us little choice but to stay as informed as possible on the issues as they develop. And there is little doubt we will have to deal with whatever lies ahead, hoping that it does not force even more people, especially those with children, from the area.

PLEASE NOTE: Comments regarding this column may be made by mail at 105 Pioneer Street, Cooperstown, NY 13326, by telephone at 607-547-8124 or by e-mail at cellsworth1@stny.rr.com

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