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Poloncarz unveils school district expense report

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Tue, Apr 17th 2018 11:55 am
County executive notes millions in state aid available to districts considering reorganization, along with millions in potential savings to taxpayers
More resources, expanded AP courses, gifted & talented programs, improved special education offerings among potential benefits of mergers
Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz has unveiled "Examining School District Expenses and Potential for Consolidation in Erie County," his administration's report providing an overview of school district administrative expenditures throughout Erie County, potential savings from consolidation, and examples of three potential school district mergers.
The report builds on Erie County's efforts in bringing municipalities together to participate in New York state's efficiency and shared services initiatives, saving millions of dollars annually for county taxpayers, and calls for the inclusion of school districts in future shared services discussions. While a full 52 percent of the property taxes levied in Erie County go to its 32 individual school districts, none of these entities were mandated by New York state to participate as part of the 2017 shared services panels.
The report also notes Erie County is one of the few counties in New York that shares sales tax revenue with local districts, providing these districts with nearly $137 million between July 1, 2016, and June 30, 2017. Erie County further demonstrates its unique support of local districts by making school districts whole for unpaid property taxes, at county expense.
"Since 2015, Erie County municipalities have participated in shared services panels, identifying millions of dollars in recurring annual savings to taxpayers, including as part of the 2017 comprehensive panel mandated by New York state," Poloncarz said. "Erie County and its municipalities levy only 36 percent of the property taxes assessed in the county and have participated in shared services initiatives with good results, while school districts levy 52 percent of property taxes, but were not been required to participate in the 2017 panel. As such, we felt it was important to look at potential savings that could occur in the area that is the biggest cost driver of property taxes: school districts.
"This report takes a clear-eyed look at school district administrative expenditures and expenditures per student, compares costs by and among similar-sized districts, explores possible consolidations, and provides conservative estimates of savings to taxpayers. Additionally, this report highlights a little-known fact rarely discussed during potential school consolidation matters: New York state provides significant additional aid to districts that consolidate; so now is the time to include districts in shared services discussions."
New York state makes "Incentive Operating Aid" available for 14 years to reorganized school districts, beginning with the first year of operation as a reorganized district. For the first five years after consolidation, the new district is eligible for a 40 percent increase in aid from New York state; after the first five years, this aid is reduced by 4 percent a year until it zeroes out after 15 years. Available to any district that undertakes reorganization, this funding provides a significant long-term financial incentive for consolidated districts and could be used to offset reorganization costs or to enhance programming.
While acknowledging traditional obstacles that have hindered such school district consolidation-related discussions in the past, other potential benefits of consolidation - such as expansions of gifted and talented programs, expanded AP classes, improved special education programs, career pathways and internships, and other expanded educational offerings - are also presented in the report.
The report gathered 2016-17 budgetary information from every school in Erie County, a process which itself generated a call from the county executive for reforms in school budget transparency after it was discovered a surprising number of districts have done little to comply with state laws requiring more such transparency in publishing this information. Wide discrepancies in what information was provided, the degree of completeness of that information, the format used, and other obstacles presented challenges in gathering budget information - challenges that would also make it difficult for taxpayers to clearly see and understand how their school taxes are spent.
Poloncarz added, "More transparency and consistency in posting accurate, complete and up-to-date budgets online is needed from school districts. This would be an immense aid for taxpayers living in those districts to clearly see how their school taxes are spent and how they compare to other districts. This type of information should be easily accessible and clearly presented for anyone who wishes to view it, but is not available for all districts. New York law was amended in 2017 to require more transparency for school district budgets. It is clear some school districts have yet to implement the law. They must do so now."
The report can be read HERE.

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