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West Seneca School District showing significant fiscal stress for third year

The West Seneca Central School District is the only one in New York State to be in significant financial stress for the third consecutive year, according to State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli.

But the district hopes to pull out of its money troubles by next year.

West Seneca and seven other districts in the state are classified as having significant fiscal stress this year under DiNapoli’s fiscal stress monitoring system. This is the third year for the ratings of 672 school districts, which are based on the fiscal year ending June 30, 2015.

Other area districts deemed to be in moderate stress include Lake Shore and Scio in Allegany County. Lackawanna and Niagara Wheatfield are rated as susceptible to fiscal stress.

West Seneca Superintendent Mark Crawford said the withholding of state aid known as gap elimination adjustment, or GEA, is partially responsible for his district’s fiscal stress.

“If they hadn’t taken $36 million of ours with this GEA, we would not be in the situation we’re in,” he said.

The district closed two elementary programs, implemented retirement incentives, froze spending and negotiated salary freezes. It also has drawn on its fund balance, which stood at $20 million in 2010, he said.

“We laid off 25 teachers last year. We made reductions in other areas,” Crawford said. “The net result at the end of this year, I think we’ll be beginning to get our head above water.”

A state comptroller’s audit of West Seneca last year identified a number of concerns, including the use of short-term debt and reserve funds to provide temporary cash flow and fund balance to address deficits. Surplus funds in the district declined from 4 percent of the next year’s budget to less than 1 percent for the four years ending in the 2013-14.

“We don’t say don’t have a fund balance,” DiNapoli said. “We say don’t have an excessive one.”

The comptroller said the fiscal stress scores, calculated for every district, can be used as an early-warning system.

Lewiston-Porter, which was considered under significant stress last year, dropped off the list this year, while the financial picture in Niagara Wheatfield, also considered in significant stress last year, improved.

Delayed state aid payments that came in last year contributed to a reduction in fiscal stress for Niagara Wheatfield, while Lewiston-Porter had a lower fiscal stress score due to an audit adjustment and additional revenues from a tax increase, according to the comptroller.

DiNapoli said the number of districts in fiscal stress has remained fairly steady the past three years. The monitoring system uses indicators such as year-end fund balance, short-term borrowing and patterns of operating deficit. An overall fiscal stress score is created which classifies whether a district is in “significant fiscal stress,” in “moderate fiscal stress,” is “susceptible to fiscal stress,” or has “no designation.”

Scores for Buffalo and the other “Big Four” city school districts, Rochester, Syracuse and Yonkers, were not included. Information for them will be incorporated into the scoring for their respective cities later this year.