ELIZABETHTOWN — Taxes would drop some if Elizabethtown-Lewis and Westport school districts were to merge, according to a recent study.
The property-tax levy per student is $15,146 for ELCS and $16,760 for Westport.
If the districts merged, using present numbers, it would be $15,895 per student, according to 2017-18 figures provided at a recent meeting of the Merger Study Advisory Committee.
The tax rates per $1,000 of assessed property value currently stand at $13.32 for ELCS and $14.63 for Westport. If the districts combined, the resulting tax rate, using present numbers, would be $13.92.
This was the sixth meeting of the Advisory Committee, which comprises representatives of both school districts charged with looking at all facets of a possible merger and advising the school boards.
The topic at this session was finances, with Deb Ayers of consulting firm Castallo & Silky LLC leading the discussion.
In talking about budget voting history, it was pointed out that during the past five years both districts passed their budgets by an approximate 80 percent margin.
Comparing fund balances as of June 2017, ELCS had total assets of $2,805,491, while Westport’s was $2,218,903.
Liabilities totaled $490,982 for ELCS, with $437,475 for Westport.
Restricted and unassigned fund balances were explained, with the former’s money set aside for specific purposes, such as increases in insurance, while the latter could be used for a “rainy day fund,” such as equipment breakdowns.
ELCS Superintendent Scott Osborne gave examples, such as a crumbling basement wall and having two handicap-accessible buses break down during the same week.
Independent audits found each district was in “a strong position and has added to its assigned and unassigned fund balances, with no material weaknesses.”
The only deficiency listed for both districts was an unassigned fund balance in excess of the statutory limit of 4 percent.
It was explained that this is generally overlooked by the state when it concerns small districts.
The committee also perused the more than three dozen line items in the Board of Cooperative Education Services contracts for each school.
For the most part, each receive similar services, with ELCS paying out $1,160,316 and Westport paying $994,876. It was mentioned that aid is generated for most of the BOCES expenses.
Bill Silky of Castallo & Silky explained that small districts rely more on BOCES, as they often can't handle some services as efficiently in the district.
“There are a few programs you may be able to run in-house, but most likely you will continue to use most of BOCES services, especially pupil needs, with a merger.”
PER STUDENT COST
As far as approved operating expenses per student, the most recent figures are from 2016-17: $24,562 for ELCS and $19,172 for Westport.
But this could be confusing, Silky said, much like apples to oranges.
“This is not a function of spending, and both districts are pretty similar.”
State aid per student that year was considerably more for ELCS, at $17,022; Westport gets $9,483. This is determined by a number of factors, including property values and family incomes.
The committee looked at capital debts, too.
ELCS owes about $239,700, with the debt expected to be retired in 2013.
Westport will pay off $278,825 in 2029.
The district building aid ratios for each district are similar: .693 for ELCS and .653 for Westport.
The topic that drew the most interest was the incentive operating aid that the combined district would be given should the merger happen, especially what would happen after the aid ends, after the 2032-33 school year.
For each of the first five years, that revenue would be $657,838, with a decline of 4 percent per year, and ending at $65,784 in 2032-33.
Studies by Castallo & Silky showed that the tax rates for merged districts generally stayed low due to long-range planning.
“We would never recommend using all (for tax relief),” Silky said. “Most likely the money could be used for things such as more programs for students.”
Potential areas of efficiency were examined, with a total of $46,300 per year in savings minus $3,111 in BOCES aid lost.
A summary financial analysis for the merged district over the first 15 years of a merger showed total savings of $5,260,396.
Silky indicated that, in reality, the savings would continue past the initial 15 years and that any staff reductions would most likely be through attrition.
One question that came up: What if the districts don't merge?
“There will be difficult years for districts with less money, especially for districts that depend more on state aid,” Silky said.
Alan Pole, also of Castallo & Silky, said he has assisted with 10 or 12 mergers.
"Every district has issues," he said. "The one thing I will never forget is the cuts in costs that were made and the opportunities for the students.
"When you look at your facilities, such as the bus garages, how do you keep things for your children and keep taxes down?”
Previous merger-study meeting topics involved organization, enrollment projections, instruction, extracurricular programs, facilities, transportation and staffing.
A review of the findings and recommendations, as well as reactions to the final draft, is scheduled for 6 p.m. Wednesday, April 25, in the Westport Central School auditorium.
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