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It has been, just, honestly, the saddest period for us in a long time...

State aid cuts outpace declining enrollments at rural schools

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Many rural school districts rely heavily on state aid because of a relative lack of property wealth in their regions, so the past few years of deep state aid cuts have hit them hard. Rural districts also have experienced declining enrollments that have helped dull the pain.

But two school districts in southern Jefferson County say the decline in their student populations isn't keeping pace with the rapid reductions from the state that make up most of their budgets. Joanna Richards reports.

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Joanna Richards
Watertown Correspondent

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It's been a tough few years at the South Jefferson Central School District. The district lost almost $8 million in state aid in less than three years, and reduced its workforce by about 11 percent. Of the 43 positions eliminated since the fall of 2009, 85 percent were teachers or teachers' aides.

"It has been, just, honestly, the saddest period for us in a long time – for all of us."

That's Jamie Moesel, South Jeff's superintendent. This year, she says, after three years of scrambling to make cuts and keep education programs intact, the district turned to full-out political activism to try to alter the way the state allocates aid to schools.

The district created a comparison between it and other, less aid-dependent, districts with a similar enrollments – about 2,000 students.

"If we had to raise our levy, to make up for the aid that we just lost in one year – just in one year – this district would raise its levy about 1 percent; we would have had to raise our tax levy 50 percent," Moesel said.

Of course, that's no longer an option, with a new state property tax cap in place that limits how much schools can raise their tax levy each year. The formula is complicated, but begins at 2 percent, with some exemptions adding to that number. But Moesel and Rick Moore, superintendent at another southern Jefferson County school district, Belleville Henderson, say the public has gotten accustomed to that well-publicized number:

"When Governor Cuomo came out and said 2 percent, you know he's an authority figure, he's on TV, and so everybody just locked right in on that 2 percent, and so we felt that this year, we should probably get as close to that 2 percent as possible."

Belleville Henderson is proposing just under a 2 percent property tax increase this year; South Jeff is hoping for a 2 percent boost. But at South Jeff, that still leaves a big gap in the budget because of the relatively low property values.

"We raise $65,000 for every percent," Moesel said, "so we were looking at close to $135,000 with 2 percent, and that just doesn't come close to closing the gap."

Moesel says looking at what other, more property-rich districts are dealing with versus South Jeff's experience has shed new light on the state aid formula and what she says are its inequities. The district has printed up glossy information packages showing the comparisons side-by-side. They’ve taken that campaign everywhere from village meetings to the state board of regents. 

"We realized that the paradigm that we had been using before had completely been shattered, and that we needed to begin to do something different," Moesel said. "We began this process because we knew we couldn't survive. Eventually, these things have to be addressed."

Moesel says the argument for reform is simple:

"If you looked at all those schools that really don't need state aid to survive, if you took that and redistributed it to the schools that need it to survive, the poorer schools – that's the case we're trying to make."

The South Jeff school district is also the largest employer in southern Jefferson County. So during an economic downturn, layoffs hit families hard. That, in turn, affects the district.

Both South Jeff and Belleville Henderson have cut staff that provide individual attention to students who need extra help to keep their skills up.

Rick Moore, at Belleville Henderson, says there's no more fluff, no more extras in his district's curriculum – except for a few sacred programs, like the Future Farmers of America. Moore's district is comprised of a single, K through 12 school. Many of his students come from farming backgrounds and the FFA program is among the oldest of its kind in the country. He says it's part of the school's – and community's – identity.

"You get scared, because – obviously our ag program is what we would be hard-pressed to ever let that go – but you know, those are things that are going to come into question as the budgets get tighter and tighter in the future."

For North Country Public Radio, I'm Joanna Richards in Watertown.

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