Study Pinpoints Benefits, Drawbacks To School Mergers

DUNKIRK — Over the course of just 10 years, 96.7 percent of New York rural school districts have had declining enrollment and 84.9 percent have had drops of at least 10 percent, according to a 2017 study on rural schools by the New York State Association of School Business Officials.

At 340 districts, rural schools make up slightly more than half of all statewide districts, yet they receive little more than 15 percent of state aid.

The study shows poverty rates at these districts are also on the rise. This is evident locally, as every school district in Chautauqua County is either eligible or near-eligible for the federal Community Eligibility Program, which allows schools to serve breakfast and lunch at no cost to all students.

With enrollment and financial challenges such as these, it is no wonder, then, that schools may look to combine resources and reduce costs by merging districts, which was discussed by the Gowanda Central School Board at their meeting last week. “It’s time to start reaching out and talk about tuition agreements, maybe merging,” Gowanda School Board member Mark Nephew said. “Merging school districts brings in quite a bit of money.”

Nephew and other board members went on to discuss their neighboring school districts, who are all less than half the size of Gowanda’s student population of 1,189 students, according to 2017 state education department data. Indeed, Forestville at 469 students, North Collins at 585 students and Pine Valley at 532 students are considerably smaller than Gowanda.

Asked if they are open to merging with Gowanda, all three districts’ superintendents said, “No.”

North Collins’ Superintendent Scott Taylor said, “If shared services was a conversation that (Gowanda Superintendent) Dr. Anderson or any of the other area superintendents want to have, I’d be more than willing to discuss.”

Pine Valley’s Superintendent Scott Payne shared similar feelings. Speaking of the Gowanda physics teacher the districts shared last year, “I appreciate that Gowanda’s board is open to those kinds of collaborations,” Payne said. “Whether that’s with combining more athletics or if it turns into other areas or services, we’re willing to have a conversation down the road.”

Forestville Superintendent Renee Garrett also said that her district was not willing to consider a merger at this time, although shared services will be considered. Currently, Forestville and Pine Valley share a head cook and are partners on the Farm-to-School grant, which helps meet their districts’ needs without incurring unnecessary costs.

Interestingly, the hesitancy to merge is not just a local trend. In a 2014 report released by the NYSASBO, 30 school districts attempted to merge between 2010 and 2014, including Brocton and Westfield. All mergers failed, though at different stages of the merger process.

Current reorganization laws are designed to give an equal voice to all participating schools, regardless of size.

However, the multi-step process is cumbersome at best, and only one merger in the entire state has managed to be successful in the last 10 years: Elizabethtown-Lewis Central School district merged with Westport Central School district in December. No successful mergers have taken place in Chautauqua County since 1996, when Chautauqua and Mayville schools merged to form Chautauqua Lake Central School District. The last successful merger to take place in Cattaraugus County was Cattaraugus and Little Valley becoming Cattaraugus-Little Valley Central School district in 2000.

Steps in the merger process involve a feasibility study conducted on behalf of the districts, typically by a BOCES or outside consultant. Then, a community advisory committee in each district reviews the study and makes recommendations, which is then submitted to the state education department. If the state approves the study, the public becomes involved through information and discussion activities. An advisory referendum or “straw vote” is then held. If voters in all districts involved approve, the results are submitted to the state education commissioner, who can authorize a final vote. If voters in all districts approve the final vote, the merger becomes official. However, if even one community rejects the final referendum, the proposed merger ends. This was the case in the proposed Brocton-Westfield merger, as both districts passed the straw vote, but Westfield defeated the final referendum in 2013.

David O’Rourke, Erie-2-Chautauqua-Cattaraugus BOCES District superintendent and CEO, recently experienced a failed merger in his involvement with the proposed Clymer and Panama merger in November 2017. This merger failed during the “straw vote,” which was defeated by Clymer voters.

“As the NYSED Commissioner’s representative in the region, I am available to discuss and/or facilitate reorganization with interested districts,” O’Rourke said. “Ultimately, reorganization requires a Commissioner’s order to ‘lay out’ a new district. Because of this, the Commissioner has required a study of the districts considering reorganization.” No one from Gowanda or its surrounding districts has reached out to O’Rourke for assistance recently.

O’Rourke said he has worked with other area school districts to answer questions about tuitioning arrangements, which was an idea Nephew suggested at the recent Gowanda Board of Education meeting.

“Chautauqua Lake is presently engaged in a contract with Ripley, and the boards there have done extensive work with their superintendents on tuitioning,” O’Rourke said. Since 2013, Ripley Central School district has sent approximately 130 students in grades seven through 12 to Chautauqua Lake Central School at a tuition rate of approximately $7,500 per student. Students who attend BOCES for a full day or half day pay tuition to BOCES (all or in part) instead.

In 2013, Ted Rickenbrode, Ripley school board member, anticipated a 4.1 percent overall reduction in the tax levy, or a projected decrease of about $1.20 per $1,000. In March 2013, he also noted the significant savings to the district, specifically in teacher salaries and benefits, special education and transportation costs.

There are multiple financial advantages to merging as well. For 10 years, the state education department awards additional aid to merged districts, who also benefit from a larger student population.

“While school district mergers may generate some savings for school districts of less than 1,500 students, the chief benefit is student access to a wider array of educational opportunities that would not be available at a smaller school district,” said Michael J. Borges, NYSASBO executive director, in a statement released with the 2014 NYSASBO merger study.

Despite savings and increased student opportunities, there are many reasons why mergers fail, according to the same study. A fear of losing local identity, concerns that the merging communities are incompatible or that one stands to gain more than the other and increased transportation times are all factors that cause mergers to fail. Additionally, loss of jobs and higher costs, such as an increase to property taxes, are fears that affect many community members’ votes.

Importantly, legislation ushered in with the 2014-15 state budget allows school districts with different tax rates after the merger to have the impact deferred for a one-year period and/or phased-in over a period of time up to 10 years, as determined by the participating school boards. However, that tax hike can be a factor, as seen in the failed Wells and Lake Pleasant Central School district merger in 2011.

“In the first year under a merger, taxes on a house valued at $100,000 in Lake Pleasant would have gone up by $60, according to merger documents,” said the 2014 NYSASBO study. However, taxes in Wells would have gone down.

“Districts with declining populations should consider all the options available to them like mergers, tuitioning out students to other high schools, and potentially regional high schools (a new high school shared among two or more districts),” Borges said in an email. “ASBO and the Board of Regents have called upon the Legislature to approve this option for school districts, but they have so far failed to approve this option for communities wanting to offer a better education to their children while keeping their own district identities,” he stated.

There are options for districts considering a merger at little or no cost to the district. Districts can do a pre-merger analysis, which may be covered by state funding, a point which Gowanda board member Janet Vogtli made at their recent meeting. However, if the sentiments of Gowanda’s surrounding school superintendents are any indication of public sentiment, a Gowanda merger may not even make it to the straw vote, let alone a final referendum.