Add districts to Ripley tuition plan

Recently I watched and listened to Betsy Devos, the current United States Secretary of Education being interviewed on Fox News. The wealthy Devos is an outspoken critic of public education, particularly the disparity in funding and state test results for inner city school districts such as those in Detroit, Chicago and New York City.

She has advocated a solution in the form of government funding of private schools and the funding/creation of charter schools via vouchers to give students “school choice.” There are sound arguments for and against her ideas.

Students attending schools in Chautauqua County have school choice via fee based private schools (usually church related), cyber schools, home-schooling or by paying a tuition fee to attend a neighboring public school. Some state monies are available for students wishing to leave poor performing public schools identified as Priority Schools.

My former employer, Ripley Central, raised the bar in the county 5¢ years ago by signing a five-year contract with Chautauqua Lake Central School District to tuition grades seven through 12 to them. What’s really interesting is in that state approved contract, Ripley remains a K-12 district, pays the tuition fees to CLCS and keeps its state foundation aid — $10,000 to $12,000 per most students. I’ve been told that it’s a bit better than a break-even deal financially for Ripley taxpayers but I have no hard data.

However if a Ripley student transfers to any other public school in the county, applicable state aid follows the student to his/her new school. Public schools gaining students via the usual tuition arrangement receive a tuition fee from the parents plus state aid for those students attending. A significant amount of money, almost pure profit when one considers that a handful of tuition students are easily absorbed by the existing teaching staffs.

Several schools such as Ripley Central and Chautauqua Lake even offer “free tuition” and get state aid for the children of their staff who live outside their districts. Ripley, in particular, has a long history of attracting a small number of Westfield students from their non-resident staff. It’s often easier for those individuals to bring their elementary age kids to Ripley Central than to arrange for someone in Westfield to get them to school or to watch them after school. It’s a money maker for any school that adopts that philosophy.

In that initial deal five years ago, both the Westfield and Sherman school districts expressed strong interest in being included in at least the initial tuition discussions. Both are still interested!

Sherman has for several years ranked among the top performing schools academically in western New York; Westfield, another fine school, ranks in the top third in the county academically. Both districts are shorter bus rides for Ripley students. I’m told the Ripley school board showed no interest in talking with either school five years ago and shows little interest now.

CLCS also performs above the county average on state tests; has a great facility and offers a large number of elective courses. However, not bringing Sherman and Westfield to the bargaining table gave CLCS a lot of bargaining power in the original tuition deal. It’s been my experience in buying, selling or renting, the more people interested, the better price I get.

The deal with CLCS is in its sixth year. If the sides can’t agree on a new fee for the 2019-20 school year then Ripley would need (in theory) to find someplace else for their students to attend in the 2019-20 school year. That’s not going to happen as a loss of all the Ripley revenue would require CLCS to significantly increase its school tax rate and/or reduce staff and course offerings. A rate will be settled on but could possibly be lowered if CLCS actually has some competition for Ripley’s students.

Here’s the problem for Ripley taxpayers: Over the last three years the parents of 60 Ripley students — 33 were attending CLCS — transferred their children to Sherman Central despite having to pay Sherman’s $570 tuition fee out of pocket and transporting them. The parents exercised their right of school choice for their own reasons while still paying their Ripley school tax.

That’s been a net loss to Ripley taxpayers I’m told, of more than $600,000 in state aid and a corresponding gain for the Sherman school district. Twenty students, spread out over several grades annually won’t allow Ripley to cut costs and doesn’t require Sherman to significantly increase costs. Ripley’s money issues became apparent with this past spring’s budget defeat. The school’s proposed $9 million budget only increased by about $28,000 (remarkably low) but taxes were to go up by $124,000. It doesn’t take a forensic accountant to suggest there were undisclosed issues. However, what should really concern the Ripley school board and community is this. What if the fine folks in Westfield suggest to their school board, “Why don’t we reduce our tuition fee like Sherman has, maybe we’ll get even more than 20 Ripley students and the state aid each year to reduce our taxes? We have the space and we sure could use the money. Remember they’ve been taking our kids and our state aid for the last 50 years when they offer a free tuition.”

I’m not suggesting that anyone in Westfield has made that statement or even inferred it to me, but it certainly would cross my mind if I lived in Westfield. The financial impact to Ripley would I think, be devastating, that’s my reason for blowing another whistle.

Solution? School choice via a three-way tuition. Bring Sherman and Westfield to the bargaining table and attempt a state approved grades seven to 12 tuition arrangement with all three schools for next school year (a three-way has been done at other schools upstate). Ripley would pay the tuition costs for all its students, approximately 1.5 million dollars, transport them to their school of choice but then Ripley gets to keep all their state aid money. Everyone’s a winner! CLCS continues to make money, just not as much.

I have met with Ripley officials, discussed my concerns/suggestions and asked for their input. For their own reasons, neither the board nor the administration has chosen to respond.

Perhaps it’s time for the Ripley community to get involved.

Jeffery Buchholz, a North East, Pa., resident, is a retired teacher, coach and former Teacher Union President.