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Six north country schools rank on state list of smallest spenders

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Many schools in Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties were among the most “cheap” districts in the state, but cheap isn’t always a bad thing.

“Schools that rank well in efficiency tend to rank well academically,” said G. Scott Thomas, projects editor for Business First magazine. “Obviously it’s the combination we’re looking for.”

Six north country schools made the list of smallest spenders for 2012. Data collected from the state Education Department ranked all 676 school districts statewide based on their total expenditures divided by the number of students.

Business First’s report said the statewide average was $20,906 per student in 2012. In the report, General Brown Central School was ranked fourth, Watertown fifth, South Lewis 10th, Beaver River 20th, Carthage 22nd and LaFargeville 25th for cheapest school.

Mr. Thomas said spending less shows the district is being as financially efficient as possible.

Lisa K. Smith, General Brown executive director of administrative services, said she calculated new data from the formula and found that for 2014-15, General Brown is the most “frugal,” spending $13,556.98 per student. The average amount to be spent per student across the state for the 2014-15 school year is $24,218.66. The average total spending for Jefferson County is $18,104.99 per student; in Lewis County the average cost per student is $21,147,18, and for St. Lawrence County the average cost is $21,172.50.

According to data collected in 2012 and 2014, every school district in Jefferson County spent less than the statewide average per student. In Lewis and St. Lawrence counties, very few schools were above the average.

Carthage Superintendent Peter J. Turner said the data show area schools are making good use of available tax dollars.

“This is something good to share with the board, but it wouldn’t be helpful to be competitive with other districts,” Mr. Turner said.

Watertown City School District Superintendent Terry N. Fralick said the number reflects a changing calculation as students come and go. He said listing all public schools from downstate to upstate isn’t a fair comparison.

“They look at a number of across-the-board expenses and divide by number of students,” Mr. Fralick said. For the 2014-15 school year, Watertown spent $16,649.38 per student, up from $14,073 in 2012. He said with the increases in contractual costs and other expenses school districts face, as well as a changing student population, the change is about right.

“Some people would say that’s great; others would say it’s not enough,” Mr. Fralick said. “There is a fair balance between expenditures and what educational opportunities we provide.”

He said the school’s rank among some of the smaller spenders in New York schools reflects that north country schools are fiscally responsible.

Colton-Pierrepont Central School District spent the most per student in the tri-county area at $33,151.52. Superintendent Joseph A. Kardash said the number reflects overall costs for the small district with about 330 students.

“The number is based on every dollar spent,” Mr. Kardash said. “When there is a lower student population, it shows a higher cost per student.”

He said the number would change only if the school cut down to a bare minimum of programs, more students came to the school or the district was merged with a larger district.

Mr. Thomas said schools that spend less also have higher academic achievement based on another report published by Business First magazine. The Upstate Administrative Efficiency Standings report ranks schools in 48 upstate counties based on their economic efficiency and academic achievement.

“Schools that spend relatively little have a tight staff and do not carry much debt,” Mr. Thomas said. “In this case it’s good for the taxpayers.”

In 2013 the report by Upstate Administrative Efficiency Standings ranked LaFargeville ninth in the state. Other schools that made the list were Watertown, ranked 16th, General Brown, ranked 33rd, and Carthage, ranked 34th.

Mrs. Smith said the district works very hard to make sure the maximum opportunities can be provided with as little as possible. She said over the years the Gap Elimination Adjustment and the decrease in state aid have forced the district to be creative with its budget.

“General Brown does very well academically; the problem is it becomes increasingly harder to meet the demands of a new rigorous curriculum,” Mrs. Smith said. “It’s just harder to stay on top.”

She said the district would prefer to be higher on the list but can’t provide more than what it receives. She said since 2012 the district has increased its cost per student by about $20. She said this doesn’t reflect the increase in overhead for the past two years.

LaFargeville Central School Superintendent Travis W. Hoover said the district can only look at how neighboring districts are doing as opposed to looking at schools from other parts of the state.

“When we make decisions for our school, we look at what’s best for our school, then our district and then down the line we look at how we compare to other districts,” Mr. Hoover said. “We try to be comparable, but at the end of the day we know what is best for our school isn’t always what’s best for other schools.”

He said superintendents have to balance education and teaching with the financial side of running a school.

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