Schools look to consolidate business offices
By Dan Hust
LAKE HUNTINGTON Sullivan County BOCES visited Sullivan West’s school board meeting Wednesday to explain the Central Business Office (CBO) proposal.
“CBO is an extension of the district’s business office. It’s not a competitor,” BOCES’ assistant superintendent for finance and management services, Susan Schmidt, told the board and audience.
BOCES already provides cost savings to the eight in-county public school districts, and Schmidt described this as simply another way to share services through BOCES.
Likely to be located at BOCES in Liberty, the CBO would take over a range of duties performed by districts’ business offices, from accounts payable/receivable to financial tracking.
Schmidt said some functions and positions like bank deposits, money transfers, the purchasing agent, and the treasurer would have to remain in the districts, and how many duties are shunted to the CBO would be up to the schools themselves.
Still, she anticipated overtime could be eliminated, a common software system could be set up, and absences could be more easily covered.
However, she didn’t have an estimate of how much SW or any other district could save.
“The cost savings are hard to define until we get the commitments from the school districts,” Schmidt said. “... I do not have any firm commitments ... [but there are] four or five very interested districts in the county.”
SW seems to be among them, with Supt. Ken Hilton saying he and the school’s business department are in favor of the concept.
“I strongly recommend we do this,” he told the board.
But unless SW participates at the most minimal level, some SW employees will lose their jobs a reality every other participating district will face, too.
Forty-one full-time-equivalent (FTE) positions comprise the business offices of the seven in-county districts having expressed some level of interest in the proposal. (Tri-Valley has already opted out.)
They serve a student population of just 8,000, said Hilton, who explained that a single district with 8,000 students would typically only employ seven or eight in its business office.
SW alone has 6.5 FTEs in the business office, and Hilton estimated at least two positions would be cut (though one of those would come about due to retirement).
BOCES is developing a process for hiring people for the CBO based on experience and seniority, but the ultimate staffing level is not expected to top 16 and may be significantly less.
“If we’re trying to find economies, it leads to fewer people doing more there’s no doubt about it,” Hilton explained.
Those who do score a job with the CBO will become BOCES employees, confirmed Schmidt. That also means, however, that their pay could increase or decrease based on BOCES’ collective bargaining agreements.
Those who remain with the district would be paid in part through state aid, as an incentive to get districts to centralize business operations.
Districts outside Sullivan County may be approached, as well, since the eight upstate CBOs encompass vast swaths of counties, including Delaware and Otsego.
SW’s board, however, remained cautious. Members Ken Cohen and Rose Joyce-Turner agreed that BOCES should provide SW with more information on what caused some districts to pull out of those upstate CBOs.
“There had to be glitches,” added Joyce-Turner. “We want to know what they were.”
“How come all of New York State hasn’t jumped on board?” wondered fellow member Rose Crotty.
“I think change is very difficult, and sometimes the switchover can be very political,” said Schmidt. “... This is going to take time and communication and commitment. ... You can’t have people fighting against it.”
SW’s assistant supt. for business, Larry Lawrence, added that one CBO has gone from three districts to 13 in a matter of months.
“I can assure you, if the model wasn’t working, they would not be growing like this,” he remarked.
Noel van Swol advocated for locating the CBO in one of SW’s empty campuses, calling it an “excellent, elegant solution.”
“We will look seriously at all available spaces,” Schmidt replied.
Board President Anna Niemann said SW’s leaders will also study the matter seriously.
“I believe there are efficiencies in doing this, no doubt about it,” she said, adding she’s in favor of the CBO idea. “... [But] we can go into this very slowly.”
Schmidt, however, said she needs a commitment by Friday, regardless of how much or how little SW plans to participate.
“We need time to plan it accurately and appropriately,” she explained.
The board will next meet this Wednesday, December 9 at 6 p.m. at the high school library in Lake Huntington to discuss the issue. The meeting is open to the public and will precede a 7 p.m. forum on SW’s fiscal condition and future prognosis.