State Continues To Balk At Idea Of Forcing School Mergers

True leadership from the state would clear up issues like those related to two recently released state Comptroller’s Office audits of schools in Cassadaga Valley and West Valley.

The audits criticize the districts for using inaccurate spending projections when preparing budgets and thus demonstrating a need for tax increases the comptroller states weren’t necessary. The comptroller recommends the school boards develop realistic expenditure and fund balance estimates for the annual general fund budget; develop comprehensive policies to establish and use reserve funds that outline targeted funding levels and the conditions under which the funds will be used or replenished; review all reserves and determine if the amounts reserved are necessary, reasonable and in compliance with statutory requirements; develop a plan to use the surplus balances in the reserve funds identified in the reports, including increasing other necessary reserves, paying off debt, financing one-time expenses and reducing district property taxes.

Why is this a lack of state leadership and not the school districts, you may ask?

The answer is school boards are elected to do the best they can for their district and their taxpayers. That means keeping their district solvent as long as possible by building rainy day reserves for years when expenses will increase more than the state’s 2 percent tax cap or when the state Legislature doesn’t pass a budget on time, thereby setting a final state aid figure, until after school boards approve their budgets.

Most districts are worried about declining enrollments and dwindling financial resources. S. Carl Perry, Cassadaga Valley school board president, mentions in his reply to the audit wanting as much money in reserve funds as possible as a way to stave off financial insolvency in his reply to the state. Eric Lawton, West Valley superintendent, and Michael Frascella, West Valley school board president, were even more stark in their response to the audit.

“The question looming in the background is, how long will the district be able to provide services to the community in a manner that promotes both the best interest of the students and taxpayers? As of this writing the Board of Education is committed to keeping the district viable for as long as possible in spite of the challenges it faces,” they wrote.

In each case, the school boards aren’t trying to defraud the public. The audits weren’t critical of how money is being spent and found no missing money. They found districts trying to do all they can to hang on – as their constituents are asking – and criticized them for being in a strong financial position. A business audit with similar findings would have been laudatory. In Cassadaga Valley and West Valley, the findings mean there isn’t a financial reason for those districts to merge.

In the absence of true leadership, the state has stuck with its carrot and stick approach, incentives being the carrot and things like the tax cap and state aid cuts as the stick. These audits from the state Comptroller’s office seem to be another stick for the state to use to make it financially necessary for districts to enter merger talks – though, those talks are likely to result in no change to the status quo.

We remain certain that, in most cases, school mergers will lead to better education and more course offerings for our children. Mind you that not all schools could be or should be involved in a merger. In some cases, it may make sense to keep two schools open but merge certain administrative positions like superintendents, principals, athletic directors or business offices – moves that indeed still save each district money. Our certainty that the existing structure is inefficient hasn’t led taxpayers to approve consolidations, and school boards are acting in accordance with what their voters have told them.

Mind you that not all schools could be or should be involved in a merger. In some cases, it may make sense to keep two schools open but merge certain administrative positions like superintendents, principals, athletic directors or business offices – moves that indeed still save each district money.

Strong leadership from the state, in the form of concrete action forcing mergers, is necessary because local momentum doesn’t exist to carry mergers and consolidations. Passing regional high school legislation would help, as would rewriting the laws governing school mergers, a process that requires three voter approvals and makes it nearly impossible for no-brainer mergers like Westfield and Brocton to be approved.

We call again for stronger leadership from the state on this matter.