(Photo from Town of Newfield)

ITHACA, N.Y.—Newfield Central School District is facing one of the worst fiscal situations in New York State, according to a report recently released by the Office of the State Comptroller.

The district was recently categorized as being under “significant fiscal stress.” Only one other school district in the state reached the “significant” designation, which was East Ramapo Central School District in Rockland County. No other Tompkins County school districts were found in any fiscal stress, at least as defined by the comptroller’s office, though Dryden Central School District is listed as not having submitted materials in time.

Districts throughout the state were graded on five indicators, all of which were then tabulated to give a final score, which was used to determine each district’s fiscal stress level — none, susceptible, moderate or significant. The five different indicators were: unassigned fund balance, total fund balance, operating deficit (or surplus), cash ratio and cash as a percent of monthly expenditures.

Newfield scored particularly poorly in the unassigned fund balance and operating deficit indicators, giving it the second-worst score in the state. Newfield’s status isn’t exactly new, though the official designation is. The report shows that the district has been running a deficit for, at least, the last three years: $199,171 in 2019, $638,513 in 2020 and $431,388 in 2021. Though revenues grew fairly significantly during that time, they were still outpaced by spending each year.

“We’ve known about this since last year,” Superintendent Eric Hartz said. “If you want to think about it like your savings account, that’s one thing that they look at. That’s one place we know we’re hurting, we’ve known that for two to three years now. We’ve used reserves and haven’t been able to build them back up.”

Hartz, who was the middle school principal before the 2020 school year, said that some of the spending habits that the district employed needed fixing, something that became apparent when he and other new administration members began assessing the district’s financial health.

“When we started lifting up some rocks here and figuring things out, we found some places that needed to change and we needed to do different things,” Hartz said. “Financially, we were spending more than we were bringing in. […] We’re not out of money, but we’re in a place where the state thinks if we kept going [that way] we would be in trouble.”

He added that he believes the district has already hit the bottom of its trajectory and will now be able to build back up. Hartz and the district anticipated that the past year would show poor financial outcomes.

Retirement incentives were offered last year, which nine people accepted, and a budget freeze was implemented. Purchases were only made in “emergency” situations. Positions with the district were eliminated, including two administration jobs that normally account for higher-dollar salaries and benefits than others, plus six to eight other people who were either teachers or aides.

“We took a hard look at what we really needed here,” he said.

There’s the ever-present caveat that Newfield is a small, rural school district, conditions that certainly can lead to financial distress. Plus, Hartz said that enrollment had fallen a bit during the time that he had been with the district but that’s only an ancillary part of the problem.

“If you do it right, [being rural and small] shouldn’t be [damaging],” he said. “You’ve got to know what your income is and what your spending is. […] For a while, there were some things that fell behind here and when you try to make up for that and take money out of the reserves, it’s hard to make that back up if you don’t have the money coming in.”

Though the comptroller’s designation is ominous, Hartz sounds optimistic that the district really has hit its financial bottom — theoretically meaning better days are ahead.

“We’re very confident,” he said. “As long as the state is going to continue to hold up their end and continue to help us with foundation aid, we feel very confident we’re going to be able to turn this ship around.”

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is the Managing Editor at the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached by email at mbutler@ithacavoice.com