Facing declining enrollments and uncertain budgets, the Liverpool Central School District has decided it’s time to make a change.
The decision came as the district’s Facilities Advisory Committee began to discuss plans for Phase 5 construction, said Dan Henner, Liverpool’s assistant superintendent for administrative services.
“We were having a conversation about boilers and windows and floors and roof replacements, and the committee started talking about what the kids of the future might need — what kind of technology, what kinds of jobs might be out there,” Henner said. “We thought that we should take a step back and talk about what kids might need in the future rather than blindly replacing structures in the district.”
Phase 5, now known as Education 2020, calls for a shift away from the traditional school renovation concept. Instead of physical work on the district’s buildings, Education 2020 calls on administrators, staff and the community to think about how to redirect the district’s resources to better serve its students.
“Once we’ve captured what we want to do and how we’re going to do it financially, we can go back to our Phase 5 plan and worry about windows and doors and roofs and boilers,” Henner said. “We certainly don’t want kids going to school in a subpar building, but let’s take care of what’d going on inside school before we worry about the facility pieces.”
Districts across Central New York are facing the same predicament: enrollment has been on the decline for at least the last decade. Since 2007, Liverpool has lost 1,042 students in grades K through 12.
With the decline in enrollment comes a decline in student aid, Henner said.
“The state aids us based on our enrollment,” he said. “So unless we operate differently, over the last 10 years, as we’ve lost kids, we’ve lost [the method by which] we can support kids.”
At the same time, poverty is on the rise in the district, as indicated by the number of free and reduced lunches in the district: 20.92 percent of Liverpool’s students received free and reduced lunch in 2007, but that number is up to 39.04 percent as of 2017.
Add in serious fiscal crises like the Great Recession — which led the state to institute measures like the Gap Elimination Adjustment and other massive cuts to school aid—and Liverpool and other schools across the state have had to make deep cuts just to get by.
“We reviewed the programs — academic, athletic and extracurricular — that have been cut over the last 10 years. Our goal during the budget process is always to get us to the next year’s budget,” Henner said. “When you look back over 10 years at what’s been eaten away, it’s quite an extensive list of things.”
Part of Education 2020, he said, will involve better planning so that, instead of reacting to a fiscal crisis, the district has a more sustainable budget model.
“The stock market is doing well right now,” Henner said. “There’s no indication that we’re going to enter into a fiscal crisis. But at some point, it will happen. Should we prepare ourselves, or should we wait until it happens and do what we usually do and cut programs to make our budget? Can we get ahead of it?”
Henner said creating that more sustainable model will begin next month, when the district’s teachers will fill out a survey detailing what they believed the biggest needs are in their buildings as well as the district at large. Building principals will be asked to do the same later in November. Based on those surveys, the Facilities Advisory Committee will make a recommendation to Superintendent Dr. Mark Potter, who will likely present that recommendation to the board of education. The next step, Henner said, will depend on the results of the surveys.
It’s not just surveys and data, however. Moving forward, the district may have to make some tough decisions about buildings and building usage.
“We have to look at the way we utilize our buildings,” Henner said. “We’ve lost 1,000 kids in our district, and we haven’t even looked at reducing the size of the footprint of the district. From the simplest point of view, if we’re not paying for as many parking lots to be plowed, then that’s money we can put into an afterschool program.”
Some choices will be easier than others.
Henner said the committee had discussed the possibility of moving the district office to the former Wetzel Road Elementary and sell the former Craven Crawford Elementary, where the DO is currently.
“From the simplest point of view, that’s a little bit more money we’re putting into summer programs or afterschool programs or maintaining staff,” Henner said. “The committee has said that could be a possibility.”
If the former CCE is sold, any proceeds could go into the district’s capital reserve fund, but the real financial boon will come from the year-to-year savings of not maintaining the building.
Henner emphasized that anything that comes from the Education 2020 plan is not “a magic pill.”
“It only buys us one crisis,” he said. “If we did something like this, we would be okay through the 2020s.”
Henner said conversations like the ones surrounding Education 2020 need to continue into the next decade to ensure that Liverpool stays ahead of the next curve. Doing so will give Liverpool an edge and allow the district to better serve both its taxpayers and, more importantly, its students.
“I think these conversations we’re having could make Liverpool unique,” Henner said. “If we have courage and creativity to do what we need to do, that could make us unique… We need to have the courage to do the right thing because it’s going to be hard, and we need to have the creativity to do it. If we have the courage and the creativity, we can do an awful lot of good things for this district.”
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.