Until about 2006, the Greater Amsterdam School District used a retired teacher to find its substitute teachers. He worked part-time and received no health benefits.
When the retiree was no longer able to provide this service, the school district turned to its BOCES district, Hamilton-Fulton-Montgomery.
From the district’s standpoint, this service has been worth it.
“It’s a good system,” said Thomas Perillo, superintendent of the district. He said teachers can call into the system, and BOCES will find a substitute teacher, which means the school doesn’t have to worry about locating a replacement for the day. A recent audit by the state Comptroller’s Office called into question the cost-effectiveness of the service, and other non-instructional services provided by BOCES. The audit, which examined four BOCES districts from July 2006 to June 2010, including the Hamilton-Fulton-Montgomery district, asked: “Does school districts’ use of BOCES non-instructional services actually save taxpayer dollars before BOCES Aid is factored in?”
The answer, according to the audit, is no.
“We found that BOCES’ costs for non-instructional services are generally higher than the costs districts would pay if they performed the services themselves,” the audit says. But when BOCES Aid is factored in, the net costs paid by the districts are usually lower, because state taxpayers are helping subsidize the services.
“Given their ability to partner with multiple districts to provide cost-effective shared services by means of efficiencies and economies of scale, BOCES should be able to help taxpayers save money on school districts’ operating and management services costs,” the audit says. “However, in 28 of the 47 instances (60 percent) in which we were able to compare costs of non-instructional services, we found that BOCES costs were 56 percent higher, on average, than districts’ costs for delivering the same services.”
The audit suggests that BOCES services might be priced higher because “BOCES do little to ensure low-costs.”
BOCES districts provide shared services to local schools. Non-instructional services include management technology and transportation. New York provides school districts with BOCES Operating AID for purchasing certain shared services through contracts with BOCES, called Cooperative Service Agreements, or CoSers.
The audit specifically cites the Amsterdam school district’s Substitute Services CoSer. The district paid HFM BOCES $25,715 for this service in 2007-2008, despite having operated its own in-house program for $15,715 in 2006-2007.
Both Perillo and Patrick Michel, HFM BOCES District Superintendent, said that the audit isn’t fair.
Michel said that the audit only found inefficiencies in one area, substitute services, and that this conclusion was based on poor methodology. Hiring a full-time employee to replace the retiree who had previously located substitutes for the Amsterdam schools would have been more expensive than contracting with BOCES, he said.
“The retiree worked two hours a day,” Michel said. “Our service is 24-7. The value it offers is so much more than what Amsterdam was getting. The audit didn’t take into account the value added.”
“I don’t mind the comptroller’s office,” Michel said. “I think we need a watchdog. But in this case they’re way off. ... We always strive to make sure our services are cost-effective. I’m puzzled by the point of all this. I could see it if they’d found that we were losing tons of money.”
Michel said that CoSers have added value, because they allow district leaders to concentrate on educating children rather than office tasks such as finding substitutes or coordinating buildings and grounds.
The audit suggested that school districts contract for the higher-priced BOCES non-instructional services because BOCES Aid is available, and notes that New York is the only state in the country that provides this type of aid.
In 23 instances in which BOCES services cost more than the districts’ in-house services, total BOCES Aid exceeded the extra costs by more than $122,000, and that for 17 of these services, the aid reduced the net cost of BOCES’ services to below what districts would pay to provide the services themselves.
“BOCES Aid shifts the burden of BOCES extra costs from local taxpayers to state taxpayers,” the audit says.
The other three BOCES districts audited were: Onondaga-Cortland-Madison, Delaware-Chenango-Madison-Otsego and Oneida-Herkimer-Madison.