Facing a limit of 2 percent in raising property taxes, rural school districts are predicting perilous times as they prepare to tackle 2012-13 budgets.
The cap on spending is not offset by a cap on unfunded state mandates, such as retirement contributions, nor on contractual raises for teachers or basic expenses such as utilities, school officials point out.
Rural schools have long complained about an unequal distribution of aid, compared with wealthier districts.
Genesee Country has eight public school districts with 9,100 students, about 19 superintendents and business administrators, about 25 principals and 21 buildings. Pupil size ranges from 2,410 in Batavia to 503 in Elba.
Despite the dire predictions, the only Genesee districts actively engaged in merger talks are Pavilion and Wyoming Central, its neighbor on the Genesee County-Wyoming County border. The merged district would have about 900 students, with the lower grades in Wyoming and the three upper classes in Pavilion.
If a merger is not approved in a vote in February, both districts would face spending cuts despite a limited increase in property taxes. A study projects that a combined district's tax rate would be as much as 25 cents per $1,000 of assessed value lower in Wyoming and as much as $4 higher in Pavilion than without consolidation.
Also available with a merger is an annual $1 million incentive from the state for 14 years. Without it, the two districts would quickly exhaust reserves.
According to Michael A. Glover, district superintendent of the Genesee Valley Educational Partnership (BOCES), districts are beginning to work together for efficiencies that eliminate overlap in a small, 60,000-person county.
The partnership's schools have in place collaborative programs in Advanced Placement courses. They also coordinate some school lunch services and central business office functions. Oakfield-Alabama operates a fuel farm, lowering gas for buses among adjoining districts. Annual spending by the eight districts is about $150 million.
At a recent "save our schools" rally, school officials railed against the state's unequal aid allocation and its failure to repeal unnecessary mandates. They said if the state doesn't take corrective action, cuts to programs, services and personnel will endanger the quality of education and could force smaller rural schools to merge or close.