Declining school enrollment and small districts are directly related to the cost of public school education. Many of the fixed costs of a school system (what it takes to administer a district and maintain school buildings) continue, though there are fewer kids to educate. Larger districts may be able to adjust by closing a school building and reducing the number of teachers as enrollment declines. For smaller districts, it is more difficult. They have to keep their buildings open, deal with empty classrooms, and may have to consolidate classes or reduce the number of subjects being taught. Most recently, because of declining enrollments, we have been reading about plans to consolidate football teams between Bemus Point and Chautauqua Lake in order to insure a viable athletic program.
So if there are structural inefficiencies as enrollment declines, how do these small school systems continue to operate? The answer is money. Most school districts in Chautauqua County derive 50 to 70 percent of their revenues from Albany in the form of state aid. State aid tends to act as a subsidy for not changing, and "not changing" is something that we, the public, like. So it is not easy to consolidate schools.
History is a guide. School consolidation has been an ongoing process. By the end of World War II, there had been some school consolidations in Chautauqua County but there were also still a lot of one-room schoolhouses. People then, as now, didn't want to change the system. They liked their small public schools. But, there came a growing realization that to compete in a global society, Americans were going to have change the way they educated kids and the state legislature began to make that happen.
One such small school system was Busti District No. 7 on Garfield Road. It had one room (actually an expanded space the size of two rooms) with four grades taught by one person. Mrs. Kronmiller, the teacher, was exceptionally gifted and was loved by her students. After fourth grade, students were transferred to either Jamestown schools or to Lakewood (Southwestern) to finish their education. State aid from Albany subsidized this approach. But then things began to change.
In November 1945, the then-superintendent of schools in Jamestown, C.V. Bush, sent Busti No. 7 a letter stating that the "special nonresident quota" whereby residents could send students to the Jamestown school system without charge had been changed by state legislation, and that now "regardless of grade, the Busti No. 7 District would be required to pay the revised tuition of $45 per year per student." The district also had to pay to bus its children into Jamestown. Then, in 1950, the tuition rate set by Jamestown for Busti No. 7 students doubled and the headline in The Post-Journal read "Tuition Increased for Non-Residents."By the mid-1950s, the financial situation at the school had become untenable. In a letter dated April 21, 1956, the chairman of trustees of Busti No. 7 sent the Jamestown School District a letter which said: "As perhaps you know, we will not get any state aid next year and it has created a problem to us." Three months later, on July 23, 1956, the voters of this small, rural district, by an overwhelming vote of 72 to 3, agreed to merge with Jamestown. The matter of the cost of education and who would pay the taxes for it had ended the life of Busti No. 7.
So, what if the state of New York were to say today that small, centralized school systems of 800 students or less were no longer viable and eligible for state aid, and that 100 percent of the cost of those systems would now fall on local property taxpayers. What do you think would happen? I would anticipate that, just as in 1956, taxpayers would vote to consolidate. What would those Chautauqua County schools be today?
In other words, over half of the school districts in our county would be candidates for consolidation, but would they do it? In my view, absent the elimination or reduction of current school subsidies from Albany (as occurred in the 1950s), they will probably continue to plow along trying to merge football teams, tweaking the system and "kicking the can down the road." What they should be focused on is implementing whatever is needed to offer the best educational opportunity for our kids including forming school districts of a more viable size. The ultimate decision of what will happen, as in 1956, will probably be related to who pays the bill.
There is nothing closer to the heart than the education of our children. The choices are never easy, and the solutions are often divisive. The reality of declining school enrollments is getting worse, not better. The question we face today is whether or not we will have the gumption and the foresight to deal with it.
A Chautauqua County resident interested in analyzing public policy from a long-term perspective writes these views under the name Hall Elliot.