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January 17, 2013

Schools facing financial insolvency

Local administrators talk about tough road ahead

By Michelle Miller
Cooperstown Crier

---- — The “fiscal cliff” for many school districts is fast approaching — at least that is what Milford Central School Superintendent Peter Livshin is predicting.

According to Livshin, MCS will need to explore some long-term options if the district is going to survive as an independent entity. Developing a budget is going to be very challenging, he said.

“First,” he said, “the state’s 2 percent tax cap will be in its second year. Second, money, once again will be tight coming from Albany. Third, our expenses are significant with steep rises in the pension costs.”

According to Livshin, MCS has done a good job maintaining programming and keeping it affordable, but he feels those days are coming to an end.

MCS is far from being alone.

Cooperstown Central School Superintendent C.J. Hebert said there has been a great deal of discussion about what is going to happen to school districts that are facing financial insolvency.

“Really, the state has no more resources to draw upon,” he said. “While the Legislature, on a yearly basis, tries to fight for additional aid for schools, there are all kinds of needs from hospitals to other municipalities that are really competing for the same dollar.”

Hebert said it is forcing schools and all municipal entities to reconsider the ways they do business.

“We have had several discussions throughout the BOCES district about possible collaborations and ways of sharing services,” he said.

Milford and Cooperstown already share a cafeteria manager.

“That has been working out very well,” Hebert said. “I would expect to see a lot more of those types of sharing arrangements initiated going forward.”

Livshin said he eventually plans to get together with Hebert and Cherry Valley-Springfield Superintendent Robert Miller to talk about possibly working together to meet transportation needs.

Other things Milford is looking to do is use the district’s two distance learning rooms more. According to Livshin, MCS’ treasurer Linda Wenz will be retiring, and the district will be looking into the possibility of sharing a business manager with Charlotte Valley Central School.

“We need to work out some details and I have talked to the board generally about it, but that will be a big issue that will need to get taken care of this spring,” Livshin said. “Linda will work up until September so there will be some transition time.”

Livshin said he sees smaller schools becoming more reliant on Boards of Cooperative Educational Services as cuts are made within districts. He said he has been advocating for a four-year BOCES program for a long time.

“Nick Savin (superintendent of the Otsego Northern Catskills BOCES ) and I are pretty much on the same page. BOCES really needs to expand programming for those tech-oriented students. It also needs to start implementing even more programs than what they already have that are tech-oriented that will do what the governor and what the government is looking at — to prepare people with more 21st century skills and training.”

Livshin, who has been at MCS for 15½ half years, said the concept of regional high schools may be something schools look at in the near future.

“Something I see happening,” Livshin said, “is schools that have worked hard to implement college-level courses will no longer be able to do so if the funding system continues to dry up.”

“I understand the situation the state is in. I am well aware of that, but we have done a lot of stuff here over the last 10 to 15 years so we can offer students the opportunity to get college credits at a very reasonable cost. We may just be stuck with just getting the basics through, and that is not a good thing for these kids at all,” he continued.

Livshin said often when students from rural schools compete with peers from places like Long Island or Westchester County they find themselves to be somewhat behind the eight ball because when those students are entering college they are basically already first- or second-semester sophomores because they are given much more opportunities.

MCS has built its college-level programming so that students can graduates with about 20 college-level credits, according to Livshin.

“We would hate to lose that,” he said. 

Hebert said managing a school district while keeping the budget within the state’s 2 percent tax cap is difficult.

“Just looking at the TRS (teacher retirement systems) and the ERS (employee retirement systems) contribution increases for next year is in excess of our 2 percent tax levy. I think that is the same for most school districts around here. That is a huge jump in that number,” he said.

“It’s difficult times for all governmental agencies,” he continued. “We are being forced to carefully consider every position that we have and every program that we have to make sure that we are getting the most for the taxpayers’ dollars.”

Livshin said he believes most schools will continue to keep budgets below the cap, but will go broke. He said most schools are three to four years away from fiscal stress.

“We are doing what the governor told us to do,” he said. “We are burning those reserves up and that cannot go on forever. There are some districts up north, for example, Fonda-Fultonville right off the Thruway, they are in big time financial stress right now. I don’t know what is going to happen. They have talked about consolidation, but every effort to do so has been voted down by community members.”

The only other option that makes any sense, he said, is the development of a regional high school. Livshin said the major savings from that would be in staffing.

Livshin has been advocating for equal distribution of state aid for a long time. He said there really is not a wealthy district in the region.

“Even Cooperstown in some sense is getting short-changed,” he said. “But places such as Milford, Laurens, Morris, Edmeston and Oneonta are really getting the short end of the stick in terms of equity … The gap elimination is a killer for us because they just take the money back.”

What is happening, according to Livshin, is the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer.

Another issue local school districts have been facing is declining enrollments.

Livshin said BOCES puts out a sheet that goes back 20 to 25 years that shows the peak enrollments of all the component districts.

“Back when I began in ‘97, I think there were maybe 11,000 kids within the component districts and now it is almost below 8,000. Take a look at Cooperstown, they are below 1,000 kids. When I first came here there were 1,300 or 1,400 kids. When I first came to Milford we had close to 600 now we are down to about 460. The real hit came with Cherry Valley back around the year 2000 when they had so many kids they were a C school, which meant they had 1,200 to 1,300 kids and within like two years they were down to about 700. Now they are down to five to six hundred students,” he said.

The Milford Board of Education has extended Livshin’s contract through June 30, 2016. He said he is glad to be back for another three years.

“I really wanted it,” he said. “I just was not ready to retire and I didn’t want somebody coming in here who was going to have to face our version of the fiscal cliff. We have gotten through some good times here, but we are headed toward some real hard times and I didn’t want anyone walking in here to that.”