The sharing of back-end payroll, purchasing and business offices amongst local school districts could save millions of dollars for school districts in Niagara and Orleans counties.
And with New York state’s financial outlook dismal at best, Clark J. Godshall, superintendent of the Niagara-Orleans Board of Cooperative Educational Services, said the rhetoric surrounding school consolidation is becoming more of a reality.
“When money becomes critical, the dialogue becomes much more real,” said Godshall who has been working with superintendents in the 13 school districts in the Niagara Orleans BOCES region in recent weeks to formalize a plan to share certain services by July 1. “We need people to start thinking outside the box, think about sharing an assistant principal (or) if we need 13 payroll clerks or 13 separate offices in 13 separate districts.”
Regionally, school populations are shrinking while at the same time costs are going up by nearly 6 percent each year, much of which is coming from unfunded mandates, pension or health care costs, Godshall said.
Those realities, he said, are what is driving the immediate need to do things differently.
Godshall said by July 1 he plans to move forward with a sharing of payroll and accounts payable offices in a “handful” of school districts. While those districts have not been outlined, Godshall said they would likely be small rural districts.
One of those districts, Lyndonville Central School District is in the midst of conducting a study which could result in a consolidation with nearby Barker Central School District.
However, Lyndonville Superintendent Barbara Deane-Williams said as much as the study focuses on a potential merger, it also reviews the savings that could be realized through a regional sharing of services.
“I think it’s important to share (services) if it results in more efficient and economical operations that will positively impact both the needs of students and the needs of the taxpayers,” Deane-Williams said. “It could result in savings over time, but the immediate impact might not be as substantial.”
Godshall agreed, admitting there would be an immediate start-up cost, in terms of purchasing software and setting up an office in a central location as state law would require any consolidated office to be located in a centralized location that is not owned by a school district.
“Over the long-haul there could be some tremendous savings,” said Godshall who said he believes with toady’s technology he could run 10 business offices with the staff of about three offices.
Other state regulations would prevent school districts from consolidating sports programs or sharing large quantities of teachers.
Deane-Williams said the savings found on the backroom side of things can allow school districts to focus more on improving the classroom experience for students leading to increased student achievement.
“School districts are taking the approach, at least in our region, that we have to find ways to be able to do more with curriculum and instruction and meet the challenges and demands of student needs,” Deane-Williams said. “When the limited resources are driven to those areas (of curriculum and instruction) that could effect student achievement in a positive way.”
She added Lyndonville would be on board with a shared services agreement staring on July 1 as long as the district had regional partners.
Local school districts such as Lewiston-Porter and Wilson previously indicated interest in entering into a shared services agreement as long as there was some real cost savings.
Schools such as Niagara Falls, Lockport and Tonawanda, Godshall said, are likely too large to warrant a sharing of business and payroll operations, but did say BOCES does do some cooperative bidding with the larger districts which allows for large quantities of standard supplies to be purchased at a fraction of the cost.
“We estimate we save almost $1 million through cooperative bidding,” Godshall said.
While school districts locally are looking to make major steps toward sharing of services, Godshall said based on the state of New York and the cutback of education dollars the time is now to move forward with the initiative.