No Panama-Clymer School Consolidation

A “straw vote” recently in the Panama and Clymer School Districts was supported by Panama but defeated in Clymer.

The result is that the idea of combining the two districts will not go forward. Thus, at least for the foreseeable future, Chautauqua County will continue to govern its school systems through 18 separate districts.

In a way, the result was predictable. In general, the public does not like change and the vote reflects that. There were legitimate concerns about school bus travel time… but that matter is common throughout rural Chautauqua County and probably could have been dealt with.

There was also the matter of a financial penalty by New York State against Panama for not filing some paperwork on time. That obligation had been reduced over the years and would have disappeared had Governor Cuomo signed (instead of vetoed) legislation resolving the matter.

But, in my opinion, the real reason the vote failed is that the people of Clymer just did not want to do it. They want their local school to stay “as is” though enrollment at the school does not grow. Currently, the K-12 enrollment at Clymer is 473, and that at Panama 476. Enrollment at Sherman is 425.

The question becomes at what size does a school system need to shrink before it is no longer viable?

If Panama, Clymer and Sherman were to merge, the result would be a school system about the size of Southwestern. A recentralized school of that size could build a new common campus perhaps in a more central area like North Clymer. Capital funds to do that are available from the state.

At the same time, what keeps existing school boundaries atrophied is the current state education aid formula from Albany. New York State pays a substantial portion of the budgets in most upstate school districts. At the end of World War II, a movement began to close one-room school houses in the state as being inadequate for the challenges facing young people at that time. (I know because I was a student in one of those one-room school houses.) New York State finally said “no more funding for one room school houses” and so my school was merged into a newly-created Southwestern District and the Jamestown School District.

Everybody loved their one-room school house but it was time to change.

If New York state were to take the position that school districts with less than 500 students K-12 were no longer eligible for state aid, voters in small Chautauqua County school districts would quickly vote to reorganize just as they did at the end of World War II. The cost to local taxpayers would be just too much without the subsidy from Albany.

We know that “mergers” are possible for schools with declining enrollments when it comes to combining athletic programs. What we haven’t seen are similar concerns on the academic side. What if students want to pursue a particular academic interest or take courses to prepare them for college?

Common sense would argue that a school district of 1,200 students would be able to provide a more broad choice of courses than a school district of 400 or 500 students.

Change is hard especially when it comes to government. Our schools are arguably our most important public asset. Yet, we seem to be a captive of the very forms of government which are meant to serve us. The challenge is create new forms of governance which will address the educational needs of future generations of Americans.

Rolland Kidder is a Stow resident.