ALBANY – Thirteen percent of school districts in New York face some degree of fiscal stress, with a dozen, including Lewiston Porter, Niagara Wheatfield, West Seneca, and the city of Poughkeepsie, having "significant" financial problems, a report Thursday found.
Report:: Read the report here (http://bit.ly/1astvkg)
The report from Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli warned that schools are dealing with chronic budget deficits, limited revenue and depleted reserve funds. The problem was most pronounced in upstate schools, particularly in suburban or urban areas, he said.
"School districts in fiscal stress were operating with dangerously low or non-existent fund balances, chronic operating deficits and extremely limited cash on hand," DiNapoli's report said.
DiNapoli has been grading the fiscal health of schools and local governments as they seek to rebound from difficult financial times.
The Watervliet school district outside Albany was ranked as having the most fiscal stress in the state based on data from the last school year, which ended June 30.
The Lewiston-Porter and Niagara-Wheatfield school districts in Niagara County were ranked second and third, while the Kiryas Joel district in Orange County ranked fourth. Lew-Port Superintendent Chris Roser says he knows why they are on that list. Roser says the school board opted to hold the line on taxes for four straight years prior to the economic crisis of 2008. That's when the state decided to cut back on education aid to the district. "I'm gonna sum it up to the gap elimination adjustment...before we lost over two million dollars and we've lost in each consecutive year that has been in effect. If you look at the policies and what has happened to the financing of public education, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to understand where every school district in New York state is headed. It's head exactly where Lew Port is right now. It's the cusp of bankruptcy."
Supt. Roser claims their backs are against the wall also because of the state's tax cap which limits their ability to bring in new tax revenue He says they have already cut district jobs and slashed their reserve funds.
Niagara Wheatfield Superintendent Lynn Fusco says she knew the district was financially challenged when she took the district's top job several months ago. She says she and the new business director are looking for ways to reduce spending and plan ahead to regain financial stability.
West Seneca in Erie County ranked sixth and Poughkeepsie ranked seventh. The report didn't include the largest city districts of Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse or Yonkers. West Seneca Superintendent Mark Crawford says it's obvious schools are in trouble. He says they offered incentives for buyouts of some district employees and while that raised costs, it will ultimately payoff. He also points out that Governor Cuomo encouraged districts to use their reserve funds and that the Comptroller may ultimately be responsible for some increased pension costs for districts.
A spokesman for the State Comptroller's Office says they are aware of cost factors for districts but hope this report will help spur constructive ideas for budget planning.
Of the 674 school districts evaluated for fiscal stress, 87 districts or 12.9 percent were found to be in one of the three stress levels: significant, moderate or susceptible to fiscal stress.
On the list of moderate stress included the Maine-Endwell district in Broome County, the New Rochelle district in Westchester County and the Mount Morris district in Livingston County.
On the susceptible list included Wappingers in Dutchess; the Elmira and Binghamton city schools; the Hendrick Hudson district in Westchester; and the Hilton school district in Monroe County.