December 2, 2021

Public backs schools

But they understand closings may be needed

Joe McIntyre/staff photographer

Virgil Elementary School fourth-grader Joel Carr, left, gets a trumpet lesson from instrumental music teacher Corinne Bennet on Friday. City school district residents commented Monday on a proposal to close Virgil and Parker elementary schools to save money as student enrollment and the cost of renovating buildings increase.

None of the 14 Cortland School District parents and residents who spoke during a forum Monday night want to see their community’s school close.

But all understood something has to be done to right the school district’s impending budget gap, although closing a school was not an option for some.

“This community needs to keep its schools,” said Lori Megivern of Virgil. “There must be other ways to find a solution to this budget gap other than close one school, close two schools.”

Many of the speakers questioned the district’s proficiency of looking at its budget efficiently enough to see if there is anywhere else sacrifices could have been made.

The school district’s revenue is falling below its expenditures. In the district’s 2018-19 proposed budget, it took $1.9 million from reserves including fund balance to close a $2 million gap between expenses and revenue.

Business Administrator Kim Vile said, earlier this month, the district reduced its use of reserves — in 2017-18 it used $2.4 million — however, it still will be out of extra cash by 2020 if the trend continues.

The state comptroller has warned the district in audits to reduce reliance on these funds as part of good budgeting practice.

Its enrollment, like with other districts, is decreasing. District Superintendent Michael Hoose said from last year to this year the district lost another 30 students.

The district cannot keep going the way it is. Hoose said if the district tried to tax its way out of the situation, there would be about a 14 to 16 percent tax increase district-wide. There would also be a loss of 26 positions, if it keeps going as it is, Hoose said. Those losses would harm school programs, too.

If the district were to close schools, it would eliminate vacant positions as they come along.

Closing one school would not close the gap the district is facing, Hoose said. Closing two schools, and keeping the district’s budget as is, could balance the budget and get the district back to fiscal health.

Closing Parker would save $800,000 a year in staff costs; closing Virgil would save $600,000. Total savings of closing just one, depending on how the remaining schools are configured, could top $1 million a year. Parker needs about $5.1 million in repairs over the next five years; Virgil needs about $1.2 million in repairs.

Cortland resident Diane Chu said instead of looking at the district’s budget line by line, she felt the board just picked closing schools as a quick fix. She suggested the district cut each line in the budget 1 or 2 percent.

However, 70 percent of the district’s budget is contractually obligated salaries and benefits, Board of Education member David Lemon said. The district has lost teachers to other school districts due to pay, Lemon said, adding Cortland must keep its salary competitive.

“It is not an easy fix that’s out there to say, ‘cut 1 percent across the board for everything’ because that’s not a realistic thing we can do at this point,” Lemon said.

The district undertook a yearlong facilities study with the consultant Castallo & Silky, which recommended closing either Parker or Virgil elementary schools.

During a work session earlier this month, district officials suggested that if both schools are closed, grade centers would be created this way:

• Barry Elementary would house kindergarten through second grade.

• Smith Elementary would house grades three and four.

• Randall Elementary would house grades five and six.

A concern shared by many parents with more than one kid is the logistics of being able to transport their kids efficiently to each school.

“Grade level centers are inconvenient to families,” said Virgil parent Susan Byrnes.

While it is not a favored idea, Byrnes suggested the district build one kindergarten through sixth-grade, centralized, state-of-the-art school.

Hoose said that option was looked at, but considered too unaffordable. It could be an option in the future, with its budget in line and reserves in place, but not in the next four to five years.

One Parker Elementary parent shared her concern of a rumor about someone making an offer to buy the Parker Elementary building. Hoose said there is no offer and the building has not been put on the market. If the school were to close, he said, some people have expressed interest in the building.

The Board of Education was originally going to vote on whether to close a school or two Monday night, but due to wanting more feedback held the public forum. The board plans another work session in early May to discuss the options, President Janet Griffin said.

Board of Education Member Peter Rogoff said the process is not about the board versus the community; it wants the community input. In fact, he added, it was a resident who suggested closing two schools.