The number of successful school district mergers to take place in New York state is small, but Chautauqua County is pioneering other means of consolidation.
According to state Assemblyman Andrew Goodell, R-Jamestown, area schools are leading the way for other districts as they face the challenge of declining enrollment and decreased educational opportunities.
"I think there are a lot of opportunities for cost savings for the taxpayers, and equally important improvements in educational programming for students by merging school districts that have seen a substantial decrease in enrollment," Goodell said. "When a school class size drops below a certain point, it's extremely difficult for the district to provide the full range of educational opportunities for the students in a cost-effective manner."
Despite the benefits and incentives a school merger can provide, there are a number of hurdles - both legislative and otherwise - districts must clear before that can take place.
According to a report released last month by the New York State Association of School Business Officials, 30 New York state schools have studied the viability of merging since 2010. Of these 30 districts, only four pairs were able to reach the final stage of the merging process. Seven pairs of school districts saw the process halted when they went to a straw vote to gauge public interest, and voters failed to support the proposed merger. The remaining four pairs of districts saw voters approve a merger in the straw vote, but failed to pass it in the binding statutory referendum.
This was seen in Chautauqua County as recently as last year, when a proposed merger between Brocton Central School and Westfield Academy and Central School was defeated by Westfield voters last October. More than 1,200 votes were cast in Westfield during the statutory merger vote, with 718 people (58.6 percent) against the merger and 507 in favor. Brocton overwhelmingly supported the merger, with 643 people (89.7 percent) in favor of it and 74 people against.
"New York state has designed the centralization process to hinge on the will of the communities," said John Hertlein, Brocton superintendent, following the release of the results. "Tonight's defeat of the binding referendum reflects the will of the Westfield community. In the days ahead, we must work together to provide the best educational opportunities possible for our children."
The report also provides a listing of obstacles to school district reorganization, including: a fear of losing local identity; perception that the communities are incompatible, and that one may benefit more than the other; higher costs and increase in property tax; more time required for transportation; job security for school district employees; and a natural tendency to resist change.
... AND LADDERS
Also included in the report were recommendations for state officials on how to make the consolidation process easier on districts. The recommendations include: the creation of "Reorganization Incentive Foundation Aid" for schools considering a merger; enacting legislation to allow school districts to participate in regional high schools without merging; moving to a single vote by removing the need for a non-binding "straw vote"; moving back to an "areawide" approval vote instead of separate approval votes in each district; and providing incentives for the creation of community schools.
State Sen. Catharine Young, R-Olean, said the report's recommendations are viable options in helping schools to consolidate.
"Due to declining enrollment, many of our smaller districts do not have enough population to offer the range of educational opportunities necessary for the students to excel," Young said. "Increased incentive aid could be effective in enhancing curriculum as schools explore their options. Merging should always be a local decision, and not determined by bureaucrats in Albany; and the communities involved should have a say in the outcome. Keeping local control and a public vote while reforming the process may help."
The report did praise the inclusion of a tax freeze program in the enacted state budget that provides support for two years for school districts that stay within their allowable levy limits.
Although the Brocton-Westfield merger fell through, Chautauqua County still remains one of the few New York state counties to have registered a successful merger when the communities of Chautauqua and Mayville schools passed a vote to merge the two districts in 1996 - forming Chautauqua Lake Central School.
Goodell also pointed to three other areas in which Chautauqua County schools are cutting costs through consolidation: the institution of a shared superintendency between Panama and Clymer schools; last year's tuition agreement between Ripley and Chautauqua Lake, in which Ripley's high school students began attending Chautauqua Lake at the start of the 2013-14 academic year while Ripley maintained its elementary education program; and several recent sports mergers between districts.
"We have a long and proud history of cooperative services here in Chautauqua County," Goodell said.
He added that the Ripley/Chautauqua Lake tuition agreement allowed for a stronger elementary program at Ripley, more educational opportunities for Ripley's high school students and a 5 percent cut in property taxes; while the shared superintendency agreement between Panama and Clymer provided savings in administration expenses for both districts.
"Those districts cut the cost of a superintendent in half, and that's a model that should be replicated in other areas like business offices and backroom management," he said.
A NOVEL IDEA
Both Goodell and Young said they are proponents of the regional high school concept. According to Young, opportunities educational and otherwise are increased manifold when a regional high school is introduced to a community.
"I continue to sponsor legislation to allow districts to form regional schools if they so choose," she said. "By coming together, schools could offer awesome educational opportunities for our kids, and that's what really counts. Every child needs and deserves a world-class education, and enhancing learning opportunities always should be our No. 1 priority. Having the ability to offer enrichment, electives and Advanced Placement courses, along with sports, makes our students well-rounded, and puts them on the path to success."
Goodell said his support of regional high schools is unwavering in the face of the Assembly majority's refusal to vote on it - despite the fact that the bill has passed through the Assembly's education committee more than once.
"The reason I strongly support regional high schools is because it allows the two school boards to negotiate the details regarding the regional high school," he said. "This includes allowing both schools to continue, the allocation of funds and how the building should be used. So, it's a mutual negotiation rather than an all-in-one merger approach. It also allows individual districts to maintain individual elementary schools; thereby maintaining a community presence, and minimizing bus times for elementary students."
To read the full New York State Association of School Business Officials report on the difficulties surrounding school mergers, visit www.nysasbo.org and search under Breaking News for "NYSASBO Releases Report On School District Mergers."