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Despite shrinking staff and programs, Ogdensburg school costs continue upward

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Despite significant staff cuts, program reductions and declining student enrollment in recent years, the Ogdensburg City School District’s costs continue to rise annually by the millions.

The city Board of Education will adopt its 2013-2014 budget April 8, but with costs piling on at a rate far exceeding incoming revenues, the district is facing tough choices in order to close a roughly $880,000 budget gap.

Before state aid numbers were finalized in the newly passed state budget, the district was looking at a $1.5 million budget gap in its $36.9 million proposed spending plan for next year.

“We’ve cut over a million from the budget already,” board President Frederick P. Bean said Friday.

On top of that the district has cut roughly 60 positions in the past five years, mostly through attrition.

This year beloved programs like Odyssey of the Mind and summer marching band are on the chopping block along with six full-time teaching positions.

Despite those cuts and a continued drop in student enrollment over the last decade, the district’s costs continue to rise.

This year’s budget saw an increase of roughly $3.3 million. Next year’s proposed budget carries a spending increase of $3.2 million.

“It’s primarily health insurance and retirement benefits [that are driving the rising costs],” Mr. Bean said.

At $6.3 million, health insurance will cost the district $500,000 more next year than this year. Retirement costs will come to $1.9 million in 2013-2014, a $429,000 increase over this year’s total.

Programs for students with disabilities are also part of the upward spiral. This year’s $5 million price tag is $857,000 more than last year’s.

“There doesn’t appear to be any end in sight,” Mr. Bean said.

Part of the problem is that Ogdensburg has no control over rising health care, retirement or disability costs. The district can cut extracurricular programs and freeze hiring on its own, but is required by law to pay for state-mandated programs.

And because the problem is in large part external, Mr. Bean said, the solution needs to come from the state.

“The solution to the problem really is that the state has to let the money roll to the high-need districts,” he said.

This year Ogdensburg is looking at a $23.7 million aid package from the state, making up roughly 65 percent of the district’s budget.

Of that, $3.6 million in state aid is reserved for paying the debt service for the district’s ongoing building project.

“That’s not anywhere near what we need,” Mr. Bean said. “It doesn’t help us cover our bills, and it doesn’t help us cover our increases.”

Mr. Bean said the state needs to do an overhaul of its school aid formula.

“The [wealthy] districts that don’t need [state aid] have to get less or none,” he said.

Predictions by Jeffrey R. Swanson, school district business manager, show the district running out of money within three years if nothing changes.

But not seeing any help on the horizon from the state, Mr. Bean said “the solution is going to have to come down to mergers and consolidations.”

The district is lobbying state Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, and Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell, D-Theresa, to allow Ogdensburg to become a central school district in order to simplify the process of merging with nearby districts. The change in designation would not happen unless a neighboring school district expressed a desire to merge with Ogdensburg.

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