Millions of dollars can be saved by merging smaller school districts in Erie County, and consolidating districts "demands serious consideration," according to a report issued Monday by Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz.
"We're not recommending any particular merger, we have hypotheticals in here but we're not saying this has to be done," he said during a news conference to release his study examining school district expenses and potential for consolidation.
But then he laid out potential savings for consolidating the Cheektowaga Central, Maryvale, Sloan, Cleveland Hill and Depew districts into one district, Eden and North Collins into another, and Akron and Alden into a third.
Poloncarz also said:
- He will hold three public forums throughout the county on the report. The dates have not been finalized.
- He will convene a shared services panel with school districts in the summer to discuss possible cost saving measures.
- There should be greater budget transparency on the part of school districts.
- The state law governing mergers should be changed to make consolidation easier.
Poloncarz said the five Cheektowaga districts spend $3.98 million on central office administrative costs. The districts combined have 8,964 students. He compared the administrative costs to the Williamsville School District, which has about 9,900 students and spends $2.69 million on administration. The difference, or potential savings, is $1.29 million.
Eden and North Collins have about 2,000 students combined, and spend $1.16 million on administration. Iroquois Central has about 2,200 students and spend $984,576 on administration, a difference or potential savings of $177,725.
Alden and Akron have about 3,100 students and spend $1.58 million on administration compared to Sweet Home, which spends $1.14 million, a potential savings of $436,969.
In general, small districts spend more on administration per pupil than larger districts do, Poloncarz said.
The county executive said he has had questions about his role in examining school districts, over which he has no control. He said Erie County contributes sales tax money to every school district, and if property owners do not pay their taxes, the county makes up the difference to school districts. And it is Erie County taxpayers who support schools through their state, county property and sales taxes.
He noted last month in his State of the County address that more than half of all taxes levied in Erie County go to school districts. He said the county and its municipalities have participated in shared services initiatives that have saved millions of dollars, but complained that New York has not mandated school districts to participate in such cost-saving initiatives.
Still, his report was met with some raised eyebrows by some school officials.
"It troubles me that he comments about transparency," said Bruce Fraser, executive director of the Erie County Association of School Boards. "I think he is out of his lane, making comments about things he's not well informed."
Fraser said school districts are required to send two budget mailings to residents, school boards deliberate and pass their budgets in public and budgets are adopted by local voters. He added that Erie County districts, on average, spend nearly $4,400 less per pupil than the statewide average.
Poloncarz said there is significant state aid available to districts that merge, including a 40 percent increase in operating aid for five years and an additional 10 years of enhanced aid.
"We can still keep our school, we can still have our mascot on our football team, but maybe we merge with a similar district right next to us, and we'll have additional aid flow in from New York State for student services," Poloncarz said.
Cleveland Hill Superintendent Jon MacSwan agreed there is a lot of state aid in the beginning of a merger, but he said the extra funds can be spent quickly equalizing collective bargaining contracts. He said a study several years ago of the five Cheektowaga districts showed salaries would have gone up $7.8 million, and there would be an increase in payments into the retirement system.
"You are flush with cash the first five years," he said. "By year 10, all of a sudden, peoples' taxes start to go up."
Poloncarz also suggested the state change the law governing mergers. Instead of requiring separate positive votes in each district to consolidated, he suggested having a single unified vote of residents in the proposed area.
He also said the state should require districts to publish fully detailed budget books, and he pointed to the Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda school budget as a "tremendous" budget document.
"We thought it would be very easy to gather the data," he said, adding that his aides had some difficulty obtaining budget information from some districts.
He also said some districts do not post budgets on their websites, and that the state should perform random audits of websites to make sure districts are posting budgets for two years.