Declining enrollment is forcing school districts in WNY to consider merging in order to survive - The Buffalo News

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Declining enrollment is forcing school districts in WNY to consider merging in order to survive

Bob Dana was shocked the first time he looked closely at a map for the Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda School District.

The school district, like others in Western New York, was considering closing schools as the number of students dropped and expenses rose. But there, in the northwest corner of the town, were neighborhoods of students that went to nearby Sweet Home.

Why, thought Dana, couldn’t those students attend school in Ken-Ton?

Nobody was interested in discussing the possibility.

“It just kind of takes the wind out of you,” said Dana, Ken-Ton’s board president.

Schools across the region are taking unprecedented steps to save money – consolidating schools, sharing superintendents, cutting staff. But one option has remained largely untouched: reshaping school district boundaries.

And yet Erie County’s public schools recorded the steepest percent decline in enrollment between 2007-08 and the 2012-13 school years among the state’s counties and boroughs whose school districts enrolled 100,000 or more students in kindergarten through high school, according to a Buffalo News analysis of state Education Department data.

Enrollment in school districts in Erie County decreased 8.5 percent during that five-year span, falling from 126,925 students to 116,104 students. Public school enrollment in the other eight counties or boroughs with at least 100,000 students fell a combined 2 percent.

The second biggest drop in enrollment was recorded in Monroe County’s school districts, which fell 8 percent.

The decline was even steeper over 10 years. Enrollment in Erie County’s public schools dropped 16 percent, from 138,136, between 2002-03 and last school year.

All but four school districts in Erie and Niagara counties have seen the number of students drop during the last two decades. Fourteen have lost more than a quarter of their student population in that time.

As this enrollment decline continues, districts ponder school closings.

Sweet Home and Wilson are looking at closing elementary schools. West Seneca closed one last year. The City of Tonawanda might merge three schools into one. Ken-Ton closed a school last year and is looking at how many more it will need to consolidate.

While school districts have shuttered schools and found ways to collaborate between districts, state incentives to merge districts that include millions of dollars in state aid have done little to entice school districts down that path.

Now, as financial pressures push some districts toward insolvency and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is proposing a plan to nudge schools into sharing more services, some wonder whether more school mergers will become inevitable. But those who have studied mergers say the obstacles to combining two districts are very difficult to overcome.

“It just goes on and on and on, the number of districts that have attempted a merger and failed,” said David Albert of the New York School Boards Association, which released a report last fall that chronicled the pros and cons of merging. “I don’t know that mergers are the wave of the future.”

Few school districts show the difficulty of merging more than Brocton and Westfield.

Easier said than done

The two tiny districts, located eight miles apart in the Chautauqua County vineyards, seemed the perfect match when they sought to merge last year.

The rural communities have struggled to maintain school programs as the number of students dropped along with state aid. In Brocton, where graduating classes have hovered around 45 students, the district has cut teachers, increased class sizes and trimmed clubs.

“We used to have a middle school newspaper. We don’t have that anymore,” Brocton Superintendent John W. Hertlein said. “We used to have a middle school student council. We don’t have that. In both of those, kids would learn a great deal other than in the classroom.”

Westfield, too, has had to make cuts as the amount of money it spent per student rose. A study of whether the two districts would be a good fit noted that, without merging, they could face potential insolvency by 2017-18.

Both had tried and failed to merge before. Westfield had been through three previous merger attempts. A proposal to merge Brocton and Westfield failed when it went to voters in the two districts. Brocton district voters approved it, but Westfield’s voted it down.

But Westfield and Brocton had many of the elements that lead to successful mergers. They are similarly sized with similar tax rates. They had a history of shared programs. The two school districts have shared a football team since 2011.

There was a sweetener, too. The state would provide $24.8 million extra school aid over 15 years for the newly merged district as an incentive to consolidate.

The two districts spent more than a year working out the details, but when it came time to vote on the merger, Westfield residents voted it down. State law requires both communities to approve a school district merger.

“The process that the state has set up for mergers is a cumbersome one at best,” said Jeffrey Greabell, president of the Westfield Board of Education. “And it’s very difficult to go through and be able to achieve a merger on the other side.”

Hertlein believes that a major concern for Westfield residents was the loss of their local high school and the fact that residents of the three towns that go to Brocton would have seen more tax savings.

“They didn’t get a great deal of tax relief,” Hertlein said of the Westfield residents, “plus, they lost their high school in the design.”

It’s not just the voting process and the potential loss of community identity that have stalled school mergers. It can be expensive to do the leg work needed to create new districts, and the benefits aren’t always clear.

Financial benefits

In Cheektowaga, where the town’s children are split among four school districts, school mergers have been a repeated refrain for more than two decades.

The districts have lost a combined 5 percent of their students during that time while tax bills have gone up, and school mergers have seemed to some residents a route toward greater efficiency and controlling costs.

But at least three studies have been done that found a merger of districts would not produce a major cost savings.

“That’s something, too, that people overlook is that the Cheektowagas have been looked at before,” Cleveland Hill Superintendent Jon MacSwan said.

When town officials two years ago tried to prod school leaders into looking at the issue again, cost was a factor. Studying consolidation could cost as much as $50,000, and MacSwan said board members from the districts weren’t interested in spending more district money on exploring an issue that had already been studied.

The school districts were turned down for a state grant for a consolidation study. MacSwan said the four districts were told they were not able to demonstrate the savings the state would have liked to have seen to win the competitive grant.

Those calling for more consolidation, MacSwan said, “can’t go out and promise savings without a real thorough look at it.”

“That’s kind of where we’ve been stuck,” MacSwan said.

While a 2009 University at Buffalo review of school mergers found that small districts in Western New York – those with fewer than 1,000 students – could benefit the most from merging into larger entities, other research suggests that other factors involved in merging eat away at potential savings.

For example, school districts that merge often use the incentive aid they receive to boost school programs, equalize tax rates and “level up” union contracts between the two districts, said Rick Timbs, executive director of the Statewide School Finance Consortium.

Timbs studied the roughly two dozen districts that merged in the 1980s and found that they’re no better off now than many districts in the state.

“They’re all in the exact same financial condition as all the rest of the districts in the state that are either average or below average wealth,” Timbs said. “They’re just right back where they were. What it is, is a temporary reprieve.”

Districts are sharing

In Cheektowaga, school districts already buy health insurance together, as well as school supplies and energy. They collaborate on other expenses, too, including private transportation costs, special education classrooms and workers’ compensation, MacSwan said.

At Cleveland Hill, the school district uses its distance learning lab to share classes such as American Sign Language and the History of Rock and Roll with other schools. Without the technology, MacSwan said, the district would have a hard time staffing some of those courses.

It’s the type of collaboration that school districts have explored as they have struggled with cuts to state aid, a tax cap and declining enrollments.

Ken-Ton, for example, shares a transportation director with Grand Island. Williamsville buys supplies with Sweet Home and Amherst Central Schools. Two pairs of Niagara County districts are sharing superintendents.

Cuomo, meanwhile, wants local schools to share more. The governor has proposed a property tax freeze that would be tied to additional shared services between school districts.

“He’s kind of assuming that that hasn’t ever really been done or looked at,” said Williamsville Superintendent Scott Martzloff. “And that’s not true.”

Efforts will continue

While school district mergers remain elusive, many school board members are looking within their own borders to see how they can consolidate.

In Ken-Ton, where enrollment has dropped nearly 20 percent since the 1994-95 school year, school administrators are in the midst of a comprehensive look at how to run schools. Meanwhile, two neighboring districts – Sweet Home and the City of Tonawanda – are also looking at consolidating or closing schools.

“Bottom line is, we’re all facing declining enrollments and declining economic resources all at the same time,” said Dana, Ken-Ton school board president. “There are only two ways for us to be able to sustain programs, and that’s with either state aid or taxes.”

In Brocton and Westfield, the rural districts that failed to approve a merger last fall, leaders are looking at their options.

“We have no other choice,” Hertlein said. “We have to figure out how to survive.”


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