Another District’s Story *UPDATED*

Inattention to Budget Numbers Can Have Unthinkable Consequences!

Greetings. Over the jump (click continue reading) read the story of Sullivan West’s issues in 2005 when unchecked financial assumptions led to the choice between closing two schools or an insanely high tax levy. The story from the Times Herald-Record’s Steve Israel demonstrates what can happen when taxpayers and parents aren’t paying close enough attention to the budgets (and the assumptions used to derive the budgets) put forward by the district administration. I am not convinced that all the numbers and assumptions used to arrive at the current proposal for WVUSD are valid. We are not given very much time to investigate, and the district’s co-operation in terms of providing access to the required data has so far, been less than forthcomingDr. Bryant has informed the Parents Information Network (PIN) that the assorted financial documents and transportation data will be made available by tomorrow (Friday the 17th).  Also, the last four years’ worth of budgets and audits have been uploaded to the district site here.  Read the tale from Sullivan West and ask yourself if you think that sort of thing couldn’t happen here in Warwick?

BAD PLANNING HAS SULLIVAN WEST IN TAX SQUEEZE

Dateline: LAKE HUNTINGTON Thursday, April 7, 2005
Section: News
Edition: Orange North
Page: 5 By Steve Israel

Times Herald-Record

sisrael@th-record.com

How could anyone resist this?

A new high school. Renovations to two old schools. All at no cost to
taxpayers.

“That is our intention,” said the first superintendent of the new Sullivan
West School District, Michael Johndrow, in November 1999. “That is our
hope.”

How would the district that merged Jeffersonville-Youngsville, Delaware
Valley and Narrowsburg schools pull it off?

“The state will pay 95 percent of the cost of renovating the existing school
buildings, and building any new structures made necessary by the merger,”
wrote Sullivan County BOCES Superintendent Martin Handler in May 1999. “A
new school is proposed in the merger plan.”

And what would all of this mean?

“(The merger) would better serve the interests of the student population and
the local taxpayer,” wrote an official from the state Education Department.

Promises like those went a long way toward soothing voters, who were as
divided over the merger as a cracked iceberg on the Delaware River. Today,
that promise has been shattered like shards of that ice.

The Sullivan West budget for the 2005-2006 school year will cost taxpayers
the stiffest tax increase in the region – right now, about 23.6 percent –
which would mean moving the junior high school to the new high school, or
18.8 percent, which would mean closing the two old schools, at Narrowsburg
and Delaware Valley.

No matter which plan the Board of Education chooses tonight to put before
voters, up to 30 staff positions could be cut.

But not one of the district’s original leaders will take responsibility for
what first-year Superintendent Alan Derry calls a crisis. The buck
apparently stops not with them, but with the residents who will be footing
the bill for a series of mistakes and misjudgments.

Those mistakes include faulty building design, inflated enrollment
projections, mismanagement and a desire to paint a rosy merger picture to
those who predicted disaster.

“There’s enough blame to point the finger in 100 directions,” says Johndrow,
who was let go by Sullivan West last year.

But he specifically points to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Once the post-9/11 stock market crashed, he says, local costs for retirement
funds and health insurance skyrocketed. State aid was slashed. When the new
school administration turned to its “rainy day fund” – or fund balance –
most of it wasn’t there.

But, as several observers point out, all school districts were affected by
Sept. 11. Besides, wasn’t all of that promised state aid supposed to ease
the financial burden?

Turns out that 95 percent reimbursement would only pay for teaching space,
not the wide hallways, lobbies and walkways of the new $30 million Sullivan
West High School.

Handler’s widely quoted statement doesn’t offer that qualifier. But, he
says, he and other district leaders often stressed it at meetings before the
building project was approved, something

Johndrow and current Sullivan West school board President Rich Sandler
attest to.

“Maybe I should have added a stronger qualifier,” Handler says, adding that
he was the interim superintendent of the district for only a few months,
from May to October 1999. “Whatever happened at Sullivan West after that, I
wasn’t really a part of it….The board and school district chose to build
more than the state would aid.”

That decision, several officials say, came because of bad planning by an
architectural firm that didn’t know New York school aid ratios – planning
that wasn’t corrected by anyone from Sullivan West.

“I don’t know if it was designed to make optimum use of the space,” Sandler
says.

Derry agrees.

“The trick is, when you design the facility, you have someone familiar with
aid ratios,” he says. “And then, when the plan comes in, you have to have
someone who knows those ratios.”

But approval of the merger, and the resulting state aid, was also based on
enrollment projections. A letter to the state from Johndrow mentions “the
anticipated growth in our county” because of casinos, renovated resorts and
the performing arts center at the Woodstock site. But projections done two
years after the merger vote in 2001 show enrollment declining.

“The state never should have approved these projects,” says Sullivan West
board member Arthur Norden.

State education officials did not return calls for comment.

But the projects were approved. And because none of the leaders saw trouble
coming, the district continued to operate beyond its future means – with one
of the best student-teacher ratios in the region and several electives, such
as Advanced Placement classes, that larger districts didn’t have.

Now, with less state money, higher operating and merger expenses, and no
“rainy day” balance, the district finds itself in a hole.

“There was no generic understanding they were living beyond their means,”
Derry says.

Legal responsibility for this crisis rests with the Sullivan West school
board, which has authority to run the district. But as any observer at its
meetings knows, the board often follows the advice of its CEO, the
superintendent. And the superintendent – especially a new one like Johndrow
with no experience with merged districts – listens to his experts.

A critic of the merger blames all of Sullivan West’s leaders – just like
he’s been doing at virtually every meeting for years.

“The man who was overseeing this was Michael Johndrow,” says Noel Van Swol.
“And Marty Handler with his false promises got us into this mess and allowed
things to go on without any input on his part. And the board members who
rolled over and played dead bear responsibility.”

While board members stress they want to move beyond finger-pointing,
Sullivan West’s money problems will not go away.

Enrollment keeps declining. This year’s graduating class is about 132. In 12
years, the class would number about 85, which could mean less state aid and
more staff cuts. That’s why, despite promises that once seemed as bright as
spring sunshine in the Catskills, a gray cloud may loom over Sullivan West
for years to come.

“This is not only this year,” Derry says. “It’s next year, the year after,
et cetera.”

Tough choices

At tonight’s meeting, the Sullivan West school board will be forced to
choose between budgets for the upcoming school year that would produce the
two highest tax increases in the region: 23.6 percent, which means moving
the junior high school in Jeffersonville to the high school in Lake
Huntington, or 18.8 percent, which means closing the Delaware Valley and
Narrowsburg elementary schools. Both plans could eliminate up to 30
positions.

Closing both schools would mean a spending plan totaling $29.6 million.
Keeping both schools open, the number would be $30.2 million.

But the board must also decide how to use $600,000 more in state aid than
the district received last year. It could save it for the future, spend it
to retain staff positions or lower taxes by 1.6 percent.

The meeting will be 7:30 p.m. at the Sullivan West High School in Lake
Huntington.

Steve Israel

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1 Comment

Filed under Local (Warwick Valley)

One response to “Another District’s Story *UPDATED*

  1. Chrissy Pahucki

    I remember this quite well. The superintendent responsible for this mess, became my interim principal for a year at Goshen Middle School, when Goshen was also doing demographic studies to try to justify huge additions being added to their schools. They predicted, using mostly data on building permits in the town, that our population would go through the roof. Johndrow, although only subbing until we could hire a new principal, sat in with architects and made suggestions about numbers of new classrooms needed, athletic facilities, ect. Thank God the Goshen voters had the common sense to vote it down, hard enough the voting machines actually maxed out on the no votes and reset to zero. If you look at the report card data, Goshen’s population didn’t sharply increase after 2005, like the demographer’s study predicted, it has just flat lined since then thanks to the economy nixing many of those building permits. Demographic studies are not facts, they are guesses.

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