By NICOLE GUGINO
OBSERVER Assistant News Editor
RIPLEY Like many area school districts, Ripley Central School District is facing the problems of falling enrollment, reduced state aid and a 2 percent tax levy cap.
In the face of having to make more than $485,000 in cuts to programs, the school board is asking residents for another option.
On Tuesday, residents in the Ripley School District will be able to vote whether to allow the Board of Education the power to tuition seven through 12th grade students to Chautauqua Lake Central School.
This vote is not the first of its kind, but has inspired many questions from residents on what the consequences of the vote will be.
In November 1992 Ripley and Westfield held a straw vote for annexation; Westfield passed, Ripley didn't.
In December 1992 the vote was held in both districts with similar results.
Two years later, Ripley and Westfield again held an annexation vote which again failed in Ripley and passed in Westfield.
In 1996 there was a vote for centralization of the Ripley and Sherman school districts. This passed in Ripley but failed in Sherman.
Most recently, in 2009, there was a straw vote for a merger between Westfield and Ripley. This time Ripley passed but Westfield didn't.
Ripley Board of Education President Robert Bentley has been on the board for 23 years and explained the current situation is similar to that in the past when these votes were held, with one exception the 2 percent tax levy cap.
"The same thing prompted those (votes) as prompted this one with the state funding, the 2 percent cap. The rules in the game have changed and we are getting to the point where we can't stand alone and on top of that we have declining enrollment. It's the same things, the fact of the tax rate, it's the fact that we are cutting programs to keep the taxes where they are at or sustain some level of accountability on the costs in the district. It comes down to money and numbers," he explained.
WHY CHAUTAUQUA LAKE
Bentley explained, although the choice of Chautauqua Lake as a receiving district may seem strange, it was a natural direction after the board's involvement in the ASSET (A Shared Services Educational Team) group.
"We had established a relationship with their administration and their board and it was a natural conversation that happened," he said.
He explained when discussing a regional high school, tuitioning came up as another option for the board to explore.
"We formed the ASSET group and we went into a regional high school direction after the unsuccessful mergers and annexations. Part of the problem with the annexation/merger process is it was so difficult to get through We still have hopes of a regional high school but also Chautauqua Lake hasn't experienced the cuts some other districts have. The fact that Chautauqua Lake had been picked to be the site of the regional high school when we were discussing it, it was a natural tendency to head in the direction of Chautauqua Lake at that point.
"We were in discussions with them, they were part of the ASSET group and that's when (it was proposed) if regionalism doesn't go, would we be open to something else like tuition. That's why we have stayed in the direction of Chautauqua and besides they have some 40 programs we don't have and the extracurriculars that we have had to cut over the years," he explained.
A poll of RCS sixth through 11th grade students found a majority against tuitioning to Chautauqua Lake and students thought a larger student population would not be beneficial.
However the poll also revealed a majority of students would like to take classes that are not offered at RCS.
Many questions have also been raised by residents on what CLCS has to offer which students cannot get at RCS.
An impact study put forward by Superintendent Karen Krause at the Jan. 17 Board of Education meeting listed the courses offered by both districts.
According to the student's poll, classes they would like to take but are not offered at RCS include advanced placement classes, drama, French, wood shop, computer classes, German, photography, Chinese and journalism.
According to the handout, CLCS offers AP classes in English, environmental science, U.S. history as well as honors classes in English and chemistry.
CLCS also offers French as an alternative to Spanish, where RCS only offers Spanish. According to the list neither district offers German or Chinese.
Drama and photography are also offered at CLCS along with other art and English offerings like debate, yearbook, ceramics, painting. However, it does not offer journalism and lacks the Shakespeare class offered at RCS.
CLCS also does not offer some of the computer classes offered at RCS, however it boasts Project Lead the Way or pre-engineering classes including introduction to engineering, principles of engineering and architectural drawing/ civil engineering.
Another difference between the schools is CLCS uses block scheduling for some of its classes, which doubles the 40 minute class periods RCS students are accustomed to.
This year seven students are participating in a pilot program for tuitioning by attending Chautauqua Lake. Bentley said they have reported to the board on their experience and have adjusted well.
"We have an agreement with Chautauqua Lake where their kids could come to Ripley or our kids could go there based on what programs we don't offer, what programs they would like to receive and I believe we have seven students in the freshman class that opted over there.
"The kids that went agreed to come to the board three times this year and talk about what they liked, what their dislikes were, what worked, what didn't and they have done that once already The results in the overview have been good, there is always transition changes, especially at that age, there's the bus and things but the students seem to have gotten used to everything and at this point I would say their overall experience is very good there. It was great that we had the option to let the kids do it," he said.
If tuitioning to Chautauqua Lake becomes a reality there is expected to be a reduction in staff to the tune of 12.5 teachers, one administrator, one clerk, one teaching assistant, one professional support staff, three teacher aides, 10 advisors, 15 coaches and a reduction in time for cafeteria and maintenance staff.
It has also been noted transportation costs will rise as a result of tuitioning where one to two bus drivers or monitors will need to be hired, three more buses are estimated to be needed as well as increased fuel costs. It is estimated the students will have a 45 minute bus ride to Chautauqua Lake and a separate elementary bus run may need to be configured.
Bentley said exploring tuitioning is not just about savings.
"Originally we were hoping for a cost savings. I think everybody involved thought there would be one but the reason we have to look at change right now is first and foremost declining enrollment. We are down to 285 children pre-K through 12 in the building, we have an $8.5 million budget and we graduate 22 kids a year. You can do the math on that; it's extremely expensive We have had a drop of 200 kids since 1996, it took 11 years to lose the first 100 and it took six years to lose the next 100," he said.
Bentley explained declining enrollment has effects on the budget and what the school is able to offer students. He added even the increased state aid proposed in Gov. Andrew Cuomo's budget will not help the district with its enrollment troubles.
"We are facing a declining enrollment issue first, then we add the tax cap to that which means we can only raise expenditures by 2 percent. That affects the fact that teacher retirement, health care, all the set costs are much higher and by the time you figure it out we have a budget deficit, a budget gap, of $485,000 predicted. So between the tax cap, a decline of state aid over the past few years we will see what happens this year, that was a surprise for everybody between those two items we can't run the building anymore without continuing to cut educational programs. We may get a little relief on the aid than we projected but we still can't stop the continued decline of enrollment," he said.
Bentley said the board of education is skeptical of the amount of state aid in Cuomo's proposal, which would total a $418,183 increase over last year.
"Those numbers came out after our public presentation. I need to point out that it's a proposal from the governor, it has not been approved. We don't know the increase in aid will happen. We don't know we'll get the number that was in the paper (OBSERVER). Honestly, we ran our numbers and our opinion is we are going to get less than what is proposed. By the time you run through all the formulas I believe it's about $170,000 not over $400,000. It's very common. The governor's going to be running for re-election in two years. He's going to put this money out and try to buy the election, that's normal of any governor," he added.
WHAT THE VOTE MEANS
Bentley explained a "yes" vote does not necessarily mean tuitioning to Chautauqua Lake will occur. A yes vote gives the Board of Education the authority to explore the option and gives them the flexibility so if a deal cannot be reached with Chautauqua Lake, the board can look to other districts as options.
"The group of parents (who put forward the petition) specifically asked us to look into Chautauqua Lake. The way we have to write the resolution, it doesn't name Chautauqua Lake. It gives us the option of talking to other neighbors if we can't reach an agreement on the cost. We could talk to Westfield or we could talk to Sherman. That is controlled by the state, our lawyer said we could not name a district but the nice thing is it gives us flexibility with the contract," he said.
He also added a "yes" vote still does not mean tuitioning is a sure thing.
"If we can't reach a financial agreement with a neighboring district then we don't have to tuition," he said.
Bentley explained without a "yes" vote, the board will have to go forward with a budget plan which involves cuts to programs.
"We did lay out what the district would look like if we don't do that, because with the tax cap and state aid picture at that time and some other things. I think the district residents know where we will have to go with our cuts to meet our budget gap but we will see how that works out at that point," he said.
Bentley explained by looking into tuitioning, the board is doing its due diligence for students and taxpayers.
"The board is fulfilling its obligation to look into these options and part of the obligation was to look at this process and to get a positive vote so we can look at these options. The board does give opinions as we go through this and people can tell how we think and what we feel but the obligation is to continue looking for better education and that's what we're doing. We can't afford to give our kids what other districts are giving their kids and then our kids have to leave Ripley and compete against the kids that are ahead of them," he said.
"If it's a no vote then we will go ahead with our plans to run the district for another year or two and we will continue to look at whether mergers or tuition or a regional high school, whatever our options are. We are so small with our limited resources we will continue to look at every option we have, that is the obligation of the board," he added.
Bentley said he hopes residents get informed and get out to vote Tuesday.
"I hope everybody becomes informed of the facts and gets out to vote the way they think is best for the district and their children and the other children of the district," he said.
The vote will be held Tuesday from noon to 8 p.m. in the distance learning room.