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Community members talk about Norwood-Norfolk Central School finances

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NORFOLK - Six people attended a community forum Tuesday night at Norwood-Norfolk Central School to share their thoughts on what officials could do to prevent the district from reaching educational insolvency.

Among their suggestions were to have district employees pay more for their benefits; discuss mergers with neighboring districts; eliminate the middle school; consider partnering with the Northern New York Community Foundation to allow individuals to provide financial gifts to the district; and lobby legislators to allow the local Board of Cooperative Educational Services to teach electives that some schools might not be able to offer because of financial constraints.

“My understanding is the state is pushing BOCES to provide high school electives,” Tracy Haggett-Sloan said.

George Smith suggested merging with another district to save on the cost of education, which he said had increased 7 percent over the years decide a 50 percent loss in the number of students.

“If this was a business it would have been bankrupt 20 or 30 years ago,” Mr. Smith said.

“Schools are not businesses,” Superintendent Elizabeth A. Kirnie responded, noting that their finances were impacted by “hundreds of state mandates.”

Mr. Haggett-Sloan suggested that merging upper level grades could be financially beneficial.

“Focus on the younger kids. Keep that in place for their formative years,” she said.

Board of Education member Thomas W. Scott noted that informal talks had already taken place between districts regarding mergers, but had gotten nowhere.

“The people don’t want it, George,” he said, responding to Mr. Smith’s suggestion.

“We’re wasting our money on things that are emotional decisions,” Ms. Haggett-Sloan said.

District officials had also prepared a list of 10 items they wanted the participants to consider in order to save money. They included increasing the class size in all grades, eliminating the middle school, cutting all sports programs, increasing school taxes beyond the 2 percent property tax cap, cutting all clubs and keeping the buildings less clean.

They also asked them how they felt about getting rid of most high school electives such as business, forensics, art and yearbook, charging the community for use of school facilities, merging with an adjoining district or using more fund balance to close the financial gap.

“Eliminating the middle school just means getting rid of the administrator. We still need teachers in all those grades,” Mrs. Kirnie said.

Without some measures, Mrs. Kirnie and Business Manager Lisa M. Mitras said the district could face educational insolvency even if it had not yet reached financial insolvency.

“When we cut, we cut people and when we cut people, we cut programs. We are probably 18 people away from educational insolvency. Before we run out of money, we will run out of the ability to educate children. I don’t know what happens then. Nobody knows,” Mrs. Kirnie said.

That would mean the loss of programs such as Pre-Kindergarten, art and music, according to the superintendent.

“We would only be able to offer the bare minimum of courses required for a diploma. The valedictorian of that class would not even be able to get into Canton,” she said.

Mrs. Kirnie said they wanted to provide community members with a look at where they currently stood financially.

“Our goal is to give you the information we have. It goes under the heading of how bad is it,” she said.

“There are still a lot of unknowns. At this point we have more questions than we have answers,” Ms. Mitras said.

Among the issues they face in crafting the spending plan are rising contributions for the employee’s and teacher’s retirement system, as well as increased health care costs. Contributions to the teacher’s retirement system alone have increased more than 105 percent over a five-year period, according to Ms. Mitras.

The first draft of the district’s 2013-14 budget proposal, which used no reserves or appropriated fund balance, showed a projected revenue budget of $18,572,832 and a projected expenditure budget of $20,654,515, leaving a gap of $2,081,683.

“This is a starting point for us. Some information we know, some information we don’t know at this point. We want everybody to understand the true gap of where we are between revenue and expenses,” Ms. Mitras said.

The revised first draft shows a gap of $637,202 between projected revenues and expenditures, Ms. Mitras said. She projected a revenue budget of $18,572,832, a 2 percent tax levy increase to generate $118,802, and state aid increase of $344,016. The first draft also uses $476,663 in reserves and $505,000 in appropriated fund balance for a total projected expenditures budget of $20,654,515.

“We’re allocating enough (reserves and fund balance) to close about 50 percent of the gap,” she said.

Crafting a budget after 2013-14 could be painful, as the gap between expenses and revenues continues to grow under a five-year scenario, Mrs. Kirnie said.

Their projections show expenses of more than $24 million in the 2016-17 budget, but just over $21 million in revenues. At the same time, their supply of fund balance and reserves would continue to decline until there was nothing left, Ms. Mitras said.

Cuts could help ease some of the burden, but not all of it. Mrs. Kirnie said they project that cutting a full-time equivalent teaching position would save $65,000, while cutting a full-time equivalent administrator would save $89,000, cutting all athletics would save $180,000 and cutting all extracurricular activities would save $55,000.

If they looked at increasing the tax levy, Ms. Mitras said the average teaching salary with benefits is approximately $65,000, and a 1 percent increase in the tax levy would generate $59,401, not enough to cover one position.

District officials will be continuing work on the budget, and they hope to get more community input at a second forum scheduled for 6 p.m. Feb. 27 in the elementary cafeteria.

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