When it comes to state aid, there are two ways to get more: Beg your state lawmakers or change how you spend money.
Cheektowaga-Sloan went for change.
Two years ago, voters in the district rejected a proposed budget twice, leaving school officials to trim a spending increase to zero. The experience left a lasting impact.
“Their budget went down, and it was very difficult for them,” said Donald Olgivie, district superintendent for Erie 1 Board of Cooperative Educational Services, which provides shared educational services to 19 school districts. “What they did was they innovated their way through a crisis, and now they are stronger.”
First came the cuts. School board members pared four positions from the budget – including the district’s director of technology and its business administrator. The move saved more than $400,000 in the budget, said Superintendent Andrea L. Galenski.
But the work – upgrading computer software, balancing the books, paying the bills – still had to be done. So school officials, with an eye toward recouping as much of the expense as they could, turned to BOCES.
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Rather than hire a new business administrator, the district now uses a certified public accountant employed by BOCES two-and-a-half days a week. It uses BOCES staff to manage its technology.
Many local schools districts have turned to the cooperative services agency for payroll and other administrative tasks. School districts are also increasingly sharing administrative personnel. Kenmore-Tonawanda and Grand Island, for example, share a transportation director. Two pairs of Niagara County school districts share superintendents.
But Sloan is the first to share an employee with BOCES, making the expense partially reimbursable through state aid designed to encourage school districts to share services through BOCES.
For every dollar Cheektowaga-Sloan spends in most BOCES shared services, the state gives the district 78 cents. So far, Galenski said, the district has received $90,000 in state aid for the new partnership.
Sloan, in the 2014-15 school year, is slated to receive the fourth-highest state aid increases of any of the Erie County school districts, excluding building aid tied to construction projects.
“We’re doing all this to take the burden off the taxpayers and to look for creative ways to save money, but also to be more efficient,” Galenski said.
There was little choice. Sloan, a village in the Town of Cheektowaga, has little commercial development, so the cost of its schools falls mainly to homeowners and state aid. For years, the school district has had one of the highest tax rates in Erie County – a fact that school administrators say is misleading because of the modest home values in the village.
While the average value of a home in the Town of Cheektowaga is $95,500, the average home in the Village of Sloan is valued at $65,100, according to the town Assessor’s Office. Tax bills are calculated based on the tax rate and the value of a property. Based on the proposed tax rate for the 2014-15 school year, a Sloan taxpayer who owned a home worth $65,100 would pay $2,131, not including the state’s STAR tax exemption for homeowners. Taxes on a home worth $95,500 would be $3,127.
Still, voters in Sloan in 2012 defeated a proposed budget with a planned tax increase twice. Last year, school administrators cut the budget to reduce the amount collected by taxes. Despite the cuts, they still faced a $750,000 budget gap when they began to work on a spending plan for 2014-15, and the district’s proposed budget includes more job cuts.
“We knew we needed to move in a different direction,” Galenski said. “We knew that the gap was going to be big this year.”
The partnership with BOCES, she said, has led to other improvements beyond money. BOCES technology staff has helped the district upgrade its technology, revamping its computer-aided design lab in the high school and moving the district toward the use of laptop carts and iPads.
“Within a year’s time, they have transformed the district,” Galenski said. “We’re years ahead of where we were.”
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