JOHNSTOWN - School officials are challenging a state audit that showed school districts may be spending more by contracting with BOCES for some services instead of doing the work themselves.
The state comptroller's office looked into noninstructional services at Board of Cooperative Education Services groups in Hamilton-Fulton-Montgomery, Onondaga-Cortland-Madison, Delaware Chenango-Madison-Otsego and Oneida-Herkimer-Madison between July 2006 and June 2010.
The audit specifically focused on cooperative service agreements, including four at HFM BOCES. It found inefficiencies in the substitute-services program, which uses a computer system to call, track and schedule substitute teachers. The audit says some schools would have spent less money by hiring and scheduling their own substitutes.
HFM BOCES District Superintendent Patrick Michel challenged the comptroller's findings, saying in a statement "their conclusions were based on shallow methodology that led to grossly misleading generalizations."
"The level of service and the value of that service were never considered in the comptroller's audit," he said.
He said BOCES handles screening, training, scheduling and discipline of substitutes while maintaining a large pool of available workers.
"Our service allows the participating districts and their much smaller administrative and support staffs - due to recent budget cuts - to concentrate on educating our children and not dealing with issues associated with substitutes."
A letter sent to HFM BOCES by the comptroller's office notes three instances where three local districts - including the smallest and largest districts in the area - were not saving money.
Wheelerville Union Free School District in Caroga, which joined the service in hopes of gaining access to the wider pool of substitutes, spent $1,120 more than when the district ran its own substitute service.
In Wells, where service was dropped in the 2009-10 school year because of concerns regarding repeat phone calls, the school is now spending $600 on its own program, as opposed to $2,940 it cost to use BOCES' service.
The Amsterdam school district joined the service for the 2007-08 school year. While it cost $15,715 in 2006-07, the school now pays $25,715 for the BOCES' service.
The district previously employed a retired teacher - who received no benefits - to work part-time, but that person was no longer interested in the job, so the district joined the BOCES cooperative service agreement, Amsterdam Superintendent Thomas Perillo said.
"I don't think the report actually takes into account that it was beneficial for Amsterdam to join the BOCES [service]," Perillo said. "If we were to fill that position, it would have been quite a cost increase to the district."
Perillo noted the rising cost of health insurance and the time the district would have to take to find someone to fill the position.
Michel agreed the audit did not take into account the true cost of an employee with benefits.
"A full-time, non-retiree doing the work and receiving benefits would have increased Amsterdam's cost higher than the cost of participating in the BOCES substitute service," a BOCES statement said.
The letter to BOCES says fair comparisons were not possible in many instances, including when a district did not provide the service itself before joining or dropping a BOCES service, or the district provided a very different level of service.
"I'm surprised that the report admits that they couldn't make fair comparisons, but went ahead and made comparisons anyway," Michel said in the statement.
As BOCES develops its budget each year, that process is dependent on a supply-and-demand system, as BOCES only offers services as districts order them.
Each year, districts vote on the budget and individual school boards of education have the option of voting down the BOCES budget.
Auditors said BOCES doesn't have an incentive to keeps costs low because of the availability of state aid.
"Instead, BOCES aid shifts the burden of BOCES' extra costs from local taxpayers to state taxpayers," the audit said.
"No one argues that a [cooperative service agreement] should be cost-effective and should save money for school districts," Michel said in the statement. "Looking at the needs of rural districts, most [agreements] were created because the program itself could not exist effectively without a regional approach."
BOCES aid, also called incentive aid, is meant to encourage individual school districts to consolidate and regionalize educational services and help students in poor rural schools receive the same services as other districts, according to HFM officials.
The audit provided recommendations that BOCES across the state "make good faith efforts to ensure that non-instructional services are cost-effective and efficient, and result in total costs (before BOCES aid) that are lower than the costs districts would pay to provide the services themselves."
Auditors also recommended BOCES conduct cost-benefit analyses for each cooperative-service agreement so they're sure to offer competitive prices, "apart from any consideration of additional BOCES aid," according to the audit.
Amanda Whistle covers Gloversville news. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.