April 24, 2014

Already sharing services, NYS schools could do more

An awkward dance

Is services sharing the new, less angst-fraught consolidation?

For years, New York state has encouraged small, financially stressed school districts to reorganize – a euphemism for consolidation. None of the attempted consolidations in 2013 moved forward, in part because state education law requires two consecutive, affirmative votes by taxpayers of each district involved.

“The inter-district negotiations leading up to a full consolidation are like a dance,” John Sipple said, “and I don’t mean the senior prom. The negotiations can be as awkward as any middle-school dance you can remember,” said the former seventh- and eighth-grade teacher.

To facilitate “may-I-have-this-dance” negotiations, the center offers a Web-app to calculate state incentive aid for consolidation, which can run into the tens of millions; alignment of respective tax rates when two or more districts consolidate into one; and other factors to consider.

No, services sharing is not the new consolidation, Sipple said. But services sharing is a good way to try a few steps with a potential partner – before more extensive commitments are made.

One provision of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s property tax freeze plan – that tax rebates go to homeowners in localities with a “shared services or administrative consolidation plan” – should not be hard for most school districts.

Ninety percent of the state’s school districts already share services with nearby districts, a Cornell study has found. On average, school districts share 16 of the 26 services measured by the Shared Services Project and the New York State Center for Rural Schools, which is based in Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences – services like health insurance, purchasing, summer school, distance learning and youth recreation.

“The school districts’ record of services sharing is in contrast to the average municipality that shared only 8 of a possible 29 services,” said John W. Sipple, associate professor of development sociology and director of the center. “Some school district service sharing is formal, via contract, and some is ‘handshake’ informal. Some sharing results in significant savings for the taxpayers, some simply results in better programs for the students, but it is hard to do both.”

If districts can convince the state they have a plan to share services – and if districts can operate within the governor’s property tax cap – “many homeowners should see those rebates in a couple years,” Sipple predicted. “Our survey heard a few objections to service sharing – concerns about ‘liability and accountability,’ for instance, but overwhelmingly, school officials stressed the benefits, and many say they want to do more.”

A report by the center, titled “Shared School Services: A Common Response to Fiscal Stress,” said, “Across a range of shared services, superintendents reported more cost savings and improved service quality than they did improved student achievement.”

The survey also found two reasons for ending a shared service agreement: Either cheaper, in-house options turned up, or problems were found with service quality.

Sometimes the hurdles to overcome are as emotional as they are logistical, Sipple commented, “Suppose two small schools are having trouble fielding a band or football program. Parents and sports boosters might say, ‘We will never combine with our cross-county rivals!’ Or they might decide, ‘If we don’t join forces, no body gets to play football. Let’s do it for the kids!”

Studies leading to the “Shared School Services” report (and to an earlier report on shared municipal services) were funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Hatch and Smith-Lever grant programs, which are administered by the Cornell University Agricultural Experiment Station. Cornell’s Shared Services Project is directed by Sipple and by Mildred Warner, professor of development sociology and of city and regional planning.