State?Knows Best On School Consolidation

Taxpayers love to complain about lack of leadership when they’re unhappy with the direction their government takes.

What, then, do we say about what has happened recently with proposed school mergers in Chautauqua County?

A Ripley-Westfield merger proposal emerged in 2006 but was defeated 18 months later. In 2007, a Fredonia-Brocton merger was proposed and similarly failed. Taxpayers on one side or the other couldn’t be convinced then that a merger was in their best interest and in the best interest of their children.

Several factors changed following those two failed merger attempts.

The 2008 economic recession led to decreased state aid to schools. After dealing with the reduced aid on the revenue side of the business ledger, schools learned the state was implementing Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s 2 percent tax cap – a move that further restricted revenues. The cap led schools to begin re-evaluating programs to find ways to cut spending to stay under the cap at the same time the state was making education standards tougher. Many wondered how long schools, long said to be ripe for another round of merger and consolidation, would begin proposing mergers as a way to deal with their dire financial straits.

Ripley Central School, after years of cutting programs, ended up tuitioning its high school students to Chautauqua Lake Central School this year, though that vote was extraordinarily close and prompted a lawsuit by several Ripley residents that is now making its way through the state Education Department. The move saved Ripley some money, but the biggest benefit to Ripley was to students who now have a full compliment of courses at their fingertips that simply weren’t available at Ripley.

Westfield and Brocton administrators, meanwhile, saw themselves in much the same situation and decided a merger was appropriate. Both communities face population and student enrollment declines. Both are staring at possible bankruptcy – Westfield in 2018-19 and Brocton possibly by 2017-18. Instructional capacity at both schools has suffered. Yet, after making it through a straw vote, Westfield voters declined the merger on Wednesday.

Many school board members and their school superintendents are thinking in new ways how to solve the problems they face. Panama and Clymer are sharing a superintendent to save money. Ripley officials made a hard decision to tuition students to Chautauqua Lake. Westfield, Brocton, Ripley and Fredonia officials have all gone down the merger path in recent years.

Months of work and discussion and study has gone for naught in these districts because there is a pocket of voters who just can’t let go of the way things were. They are swayed by specious arguments about why one community seems to benefit more financially or the equally flimsy “community identity” argument and lose sight of the fact the merged district will provide a better education for the children involved.

Given the struggle we have seen both to tuition students and to combine districts, we wonder what voters are afraid of when they step into the voting booth. Who is failing whom?

Everyone knows declining enrollments, rising costs and tougher standards mean schools must eventually merge. New York has set the stage with cuts in state aid, increasing education standards and the 2 percent tax cap. State officials had to think setting the stage would make the local decision to merge easier.

They were wrong in that assumption.

If consolidation is the answer to what ails school districts, it appears the state will have to force consolidations much as it forced the wave of centralization in the mid-1900s. It appears local taxpayers don’t have the stomach to pull the trigger.

After all, you can lead a horse to water. That doesn’t mean you can make it drink.