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North country educators call on state to help in times of fiscal distress

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A report released Thursday by the state comptroller’s office showed that 13 percent of New York schools are “fiscally stressed.” Educators, in turn, are calling on the state to do more to solve the problem.

In St. Lawrence County, the Potsdam Central and Ogdensburg City school districts were the only schools to make the list – designated as “susceptible to fiscal stress” – while in Jefferson County, General Brown Central School was listed as being in “significant fiscal stress.”

“We’ve been telling our representatives and people at the state level for four or five years that this is where we are headed,” Ogdensburg Superintendent Timothy M. Vernsey said. “Unless they do something with the distribution of state aid, we will continue to be financially distressed.”

The report, which factors in the use of fund balance, short-term debt and cash on hand to determine whether a school is fiscally stressed, was designed to highlight the need for long-range planning and efficiencies at the district level.

Schools were designated as either in “significant fiscal stress,” in “moderate fiscal stress” or as “susceptible to fiscal stress.”

“Unfortunately, reductions in state aid, a cap on local revenue and decreased rainy day funds are creating financial challenges that more and more school districts are having trouble overcoming,” Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli said in a news release.

Brian Butry, spokesman for the comptroller’s office, said the goal is for the report to foster an informed conversation about education funding going forward.

“The governor has already talked about an increase in school aid” this year, Mr. Butry said. “If this system can help inform that discussion, it’s obviously a positive.”

But in Ogdensburg, Potsdam and General Brown, efficiencies have been sought after for the past five years following a decrease in state aid caused by the 2008 recession.

In Ogdensburg, Mr. Vernsey said, about 60 positions have been cut since foundation aid was frozen.

Potsdam Superintendent Patrick A. Brady said 48 positions in his district have been cut over the same period.

“We’re receiving less money now than we did in 2008-09, yet the cost of doing business has gone up considerably since then,” Mr. Brady said.

Lisa K. Smith, executive director of administrative services at General Brown, said her district is stretched to its limit.

“The answer isn’t cutting more; we have no fat left to cut,” she said. “Our budget had always been lean, but when New York state implemented the gap elimination adjustment, it only got worse.”

Since the adjustment’s implementation in the 2009-10 school year, Mrs. Smith said, the district has cut 45 positions, about 25 percent of the school’s workforce, and entire programs.

“We are down to one language now; we’ve cut driver’s education, our GED program, business program and a lot of our programs were reduced,” Mrs. Smith said. “The answer is more revenue; our kids can’t afford more cuts.”

Mr. Brady said before 2008 the district was applying roughly $500,000 in fund balance to stabilize the budget each year.

That number has risen to $2 million a year since then, he said.

“It’s like drawing down your bank account,” Mr. Brady said.

In Ogdensburg, the district has reduced its reserves from a total of $4.7 million two years ago to $3.2 million this year, Mr. Vernsey said.

Educators at the three schools all agreed about the solution to the problem: the restoration of basic education funding.

General Brown Superintendent Cammy J. Morrison said without financial stability, the district can’t run a school to the fullest, which its students deserve.

“Two main things we need are increased state aid and the ability to raise our tax levy,” Mrs. Morrison said.

Mr. Vernsey, noting that many districts, including Ogdensburg, rely on state aid as one of their primary revenue streams, said, “If we had other alternatives we would certainly be doing them. We’re totally dependent on state aid regardless of whether we’re in good times or bad times.”

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