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Seeking strength in consolidation ; School districts look into sharing burden

With the state fiscal situation dismal at best, and Niagara County taxpayers currently dishing out more than $500 million annually to their local school districts, the buzzword of the past year, consolidation, is becoming a reality for superintendents.

It isn't hard to see why:

Federal economic stimulus money is gone.

New York State faces an $11 billion budget deficit for next year.

State education aid is shrinking, based on enrollment, for the first time in four years.

School costs are increasing at 6 percent each year, and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo vows a tax-increase cap of 2 percent in the upcoming budget.

"It's not a good time to be a superintendent," said Clark Godshall, superintendent of the Niagara-Orleans Board of Cooperative Educational Services for the last 23 years. "There is no good news coming. The perfect storm is here."

Most districts, including Lockport, have already discussed the possibility of pension caps, salary freezes and adding another tier to negotiations with teachers unions.

Godshall also believes districts can save significantly, at least in the long term, by following the example of BOCES, which for the last 54 years has saved millions through the sharing of "back-room operations."

Last June, Godshall began pushing a "handful" of districts to create a consolidation plan for payroll and accounts payable offices by July 1.

"Do we really need 13 payroll clerks," he said, "or can we come together and have one payroll clerk? We need more sharing."

Newfane Superintendent Christine Tibbetts said the School Board is planning for three possible scenarios come Tuesday, when the state budget is announced: "the good, the bad and the ugly."

Nothing is in the works yet, she said, as far as consolidation, but it's a real possibility.

"Right now, the concept is out there," she said. "I just don't have any details as far as how much any of these consolidation efforts would save the district to allow me to plug numbers into the budget."

Godshall acknowledged that savings may not show up immediately due to start-up costs, such as the purchasing of software and setting up a business office. State law would require the operation to be in a centralized location not owned by a school district.

Some districts, though, already are brainstorming ways to consolidate.

Wilson Superintendent Michael Wendt said the district and the nearby Barker School District are considering sharing the post of coordinator of special education.

Wendt also said he plans to consolidate in-house operations, which he said boils down to a 20 percent cut in the district administrative team.

Lew-Port has yet to hire anyone to the newly created post of director of curriculum and instruction, said Superintendent R. Christopher Roser, and that may be a position that can be shared with another district. Another opportunity for consolidation may arise when Assistant Superintendent Don Rappold retires.

"You have to think outside the box," Roser said. "I'm willing to look at just about anything."

He is no stranger to consolidation. Back in 2004, he consolidated himself out of a job by heading up a merger between the Greenwood and Canisteo school districts in Steuben County.

Roser said the eventual merger of all school districts into one countywide district may not be far-fetched, but Godshall said large-scale consolidation does not always equal big savings.

Barker, for example, pulled out of a six-month merger study with nearby Lyndonville School District last month. Barker Superintendent Roger Klatt said the board felt any savings would come at too high of a cost to Barker residents, especially in the area of transportation.

Godshall promised a zero increase in BOCES tuition to school districts next year to help break the fall, but he encouraged districts to accomplish as much as they can in house, especially when it comes to special education.

"This is the worst I've seen it," he said. "People sometimes call a district's reserve fund the rainy day fund. Well, it's pouring."

e-mail: niagaranews@buffnews.com

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