December 2, 2021

Cortland, Marathon still on state ‘stress’ list

Schools continue to face many financial challenges

Cortland County Seal

For the third consecutive year, the Cortland Enlarged City School District has made a state comptroller’s list of financially stressed school districts.

The Marathon Central School District made the list for a second year, according to the state comptroller’s office.

Cortland was rated as “moderately” stressed, joining four other districts in the second-most severe category. Marathon was “susceptible to stress,” along with 23 others. In all, 33 school districts were listed.

“Some of New York’s school districts are in fiscal trouble. While there are a number of factors causing their fiscal stress, each district should address these problems today,” said Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli in the report. “My fiscal stress monitoring system flags issues early so communities can correct them. My office will continue to provide financial planning tools, guidance and training to help schools in stress.”

The report is based on school-reported data from 674 school districts and their fund balances, deficits, cash on hand on use of short-term borrowing.

“We’re on the list because we’ve used our reserve balances to balance our budget over the last six years but we’re running out of reserves,” said Cortland Superintendent Michael J. Hoose, because, he claims the school does not receive as much state aid, almost $24 million, as he says it is entitled to receive.

The district, he said, has a high poverty level — 60% of its students were economically disadvantaged in 2017-18, state data show. That necessitates more state aid, he said.

He thinks that the rest of the fiscal year 2019-20 will be a hard year for the district with health care costs increasing 8% and revenue only increasing about 1 to 2%, he said.

The district has closed two schools, Parker and Virgil elementary schools, eliminated 21 jobs and installed new energy efficient lights and heating and air conditioning controls to help reduce costs, Hoose said.

Now Hoose plans to work with state legislators to get more state aid.

“It’s going to be a very tough year financially,” he said.

At Marathon, the district spent more than it received in income for the past three years, said Business Administrator Tom Goskoski, including $400,000 in 2018-19, which put it on the “susceptible” list.

“In our budget we have been utilizing our reserves to fill that gap in order to bring them more in line with what the Comptroller’s Office deems reasonable,” he said.

To address that, the 2% property tax cap would need to be raised, something the state would need to do, and the formula for foundation aid, which funds 60% of the school’s budget, needs to be more consistent, he said.

Goskoski, though, remains hopeful about the district’s financial outlook.

The district has developed a plan for how it uses its reserves, which Goskoski said the Comptroller’s Office suggested.

“We are on track to have a financially successful school year in 2019-20 and are currently building a budget to do the same in 2020-21,” he said.