By Joel Petlin
Three years ago, New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli unveiled a formula to measure the fiscal stress that affects school districts in New York. The formula analyzes several indicators such as fund balance, operating deficits, cash ratio and debt issuance, in order to determine a score. The score is then used to categorize the districts’ fiscal health into four levels of stress: significant, moderate, susceptible and no designation.
To no one’s surprise, the East Ramapo School District has once again made the list of districts with “Significant Fiscal Stress.” But before we reflexively jump to the conclusion that this is another proof that East Ramapo requires a monitor with veto power, let’s take a closer look at the Comptroller’s findings.
Of the eight districts listed in the category of “Significant Fiscal Stress,” East Ramapo has made the strongest improvement from last year, going from 86.7 percent to 66.7 percent, an improvement of more than 23 percent. In fact, the majority of other districts have seen a decrease in their year-to-year score. Of the 672 school districts evaluated, East Ramapo had the 25th largest year-to-year improvement. Some other points to ponder:
• The East Ramapo Fund Balance score improved by 17 percent
• Their score in Lower Operating Deficits jumped by 50 percent
• Their Cash Ratio score increased by 41 percent
• Of the 82 districts that are on this year’s stress list, 32 of them have been on the list for all three years
• One School District even scored a record 98.3 percent, which was a 29 percent increase from last year
Yet, despite the significant fiscal gains made in East Ramapo, and despite the unique environmental stress factors found in the district (such as high poverty), the Comptroller’s list will once again be used to bludgeon the East Ramapo School Board. I have not heard a single call for a monitor at any of the 82 other stressed School Districts or even for one at the other 32 repeat offenders. The simple reason is that in all these other communities, we accept fiscal stress as merely a warning sign for rising debt and lowered fund balance. In East Ramapo – it’s a political statement.
The truth is that the Comptroller’s Report is an effective tool for all school districts to gauge their fiscal health. It’s inevitable for many more school districts to end up on the stress list with the limitations of flat state aid and a tax cap of a mere 0.12 percent. This will clearly affect programs, staffing and even building closures throughout the state.
The students of East Ramapo should not be pawns in a game of political chess in Albany. They have the right to adequate resources in order to maintain their programs and services. Like school districts, most of us live under a degree of fiscal stress. Our goal should be to work together to protect our children from the stress and unite as a community to obtain fair funding.
Joel Petlin is an East Ramapo resident, the Superintendent of the Kiryas Joel School District and a member of the LoHud Board of Contributors.