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

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POTSDAM - 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.

The Potsdam Central, Salmon River Central and Ogdensburg City school districts were the only schools to make the list – designated as “susceptible to fiscal stress” in St. Lawrence and Franklin counties– while the General Brown Central School, Jefferson County, and Tupper Lake Central, Franklin County, were 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 Potsdam. Ogdensburg, Salmon River and at 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, roughly 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 time period.

“We’re receiving less money now than we did in 2008-2009, yet the cost of doing business has gone up considerably since then,” Mr. Brady said.

He said prior to 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.

Since the GEA came into effect, Salmon River has lost about $5.4 million in previously received state aid and roughly 40 positions have been cut, according to Superintendent Jane Collins.

She said the district has the lowest income and property wealth for the state, making it heavily dependent on state aid that has been dwindling away for years. The district’s ability to continue other programs, and even start new ones like the sixth-grade STEM program, is “a compliment to our teachers and administrators” and the frugal spending habits of the school, she said.

Meanwhile, Salmon River representatives will continue to lobby for the restoration of state aid so the school can “maintain a strong educational program.”

“Our students deserve that,” Ms. Collins said.

Schools in the report were designated as either in “significant fiscal stress,” in “moderate fiscal stress” or as “susceptible to fiscal stress.” If a school did not fall into any of these categories it was listed as “no designation.”

Educators agreed about the solution to the problem: the restoration of basic education funding.

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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