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Schools share the future Districts should look at consolidating services in order to preserve education

News that the Grand Island School District will share its transportation director with the Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda school system is a small step toward raising the nearly taboo subject of school district consolidation.

There are 27 school districts in Erie County, along with two Boards of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES). Every school district is facing difficult choices as enrollment declines while expenses keep rising.

One choice that makes a lot of sense is sharing administrative services -- Akron Central School District began sharing its transportation supervisor with the Clarence Central District a year ago.

The financial stress in maintaining buildings, faculty and administrative staff, not to mention the legacy costs of lifetime health and pension packages, is crushing. Toss in the cap on property tax increases and school districts are facing a perfect economic storm. That storm can either be disastrous or a catalyst for change.

Civic leader Kevin Gaughan, unsurprisingly, is pushing for dramatic change that will prove much more difficult than his work in downsizing town and village boards.

Gaughan's bill in the State Legislature would extend the right of referendum by petition to give residents a chance to decide on school consolidation. He's crunched the numbers on the nation's school districts -- just over 13,400 school districts in America -- and found that Erie County's total of 27 school districts is wildly out of proportion to any other community of like size. Moreover, 17 of those districts have fewer than 3,000 students.

This is a community of about 900,000 people, and Gaughan's research shows that communities of similar size have just nine school districts. That's nine, not 27.

The legacy cost, especially of high-salaried administrators, is, as Gaughan said, bankrupting this community.

Ken-Ton Superintendent Mark Mondanaro seems to get it, and has instituted some sweeping changes. He has frozen his pay and agreed to givebacks in his benefits. In addition to sharing the transportation director, Ken-Ton is down to one shared program supervisor.

In this changed climate, Mondanaro is looking to find the staffing level that is necessary and that the district can support. Sharing the director of transportation, as in Akron-Clarence precipitated by a retirement, may not save hundreds of thousands of dollars but is an example of creative ways to share work.

Mondanaro announced in January that he will recommend closing at least one elementary school for 2013-14. This major step in controlling expenses will likely be met with strong opinions for and against.

Consolidation of entire school districts is a very different, much more difficult discussion to begin. But times are changing; enrollments are declining and unlimited funding is a thing of the past. Sharing services helps preserve education by eliminating spending on layers of administrators. When that becomes widely accepted, it may finally be time to begin the debate over how many school districts are enough.