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No guts for school district consolidation

It's like Diogenes' search for an honest man. I'm looking for a state legislator with guts.

Just one voice in the wilderness. Just one lawmaker with vision.

Suburban schools are up against the wall. The 2 percent ceiling on property tax hikes, which are largely driven by school taxes, is bringing the pain.

Suburban schools can no longer default to ever-higher taxes to cover costs. The cutting board is out. On it is everything from teachers to music to school sports to SAT prep -- all of the goodies that upscale districts deposit in the parent-confidence bank.

Collateral damage already litters the landscape. Voters in Lake Shore slapped down a plan for new buses. Upscale Clarence could be looking at axing 12 positions. There is talk in East Aurora of cutting 15 positions and some sports.

The slice-and-dice that has long been a given in Buffalo is blasphemy in the burbs.

The problem is, at no point has there been any mention of the obvious from superintendents and school boards: Saving money by combining some of the 27 -- count 'em -- school districts that balkanize Erie County. We have more silos than an Iowa cornfield.

Civic leader Kevin Gaughan studied school districts nationally. He said that across the country, a community our size has, on average, eight districts. We have more than three times that many. And that has not changed, even as the county lost 31,000 people over the last 10 years.

Cheektowaga parents funnel kids to six different districts. The North Collins district has barely 600 students. That's fewer than in my high school graduating class. At some point, the absurd becomes unacceptable.

Slicing redundant superintendents and their six-figure salary/benefit packages -- along with a cavalcade of assistants and deputies -- means more money for sports, music, teachers and prep programs.

This is not, to be clear, about closing schools, cutting principals or euthanizing mascots. All of that would remain. It's about downsizing an army of administrators and overlapping services.

Joel Giambra, then the city comptroller, 15 years ago asked a question that remains unanswered: "Why do we need more than two dozen separate [district] purchasing operations, bus maintenance shops and data processing centers?"

The only way anything changes -- given the self-interest of school boards and superintendents -- is if taxpayers grab pitchforks and torches. Superintendents would rather bum-rush a bake sale than put consolidation on the table. We have been kicking the consolidation can down the road and getting nowhere since the pre-cellphone era. This is not happening unless people make it happen. The pain of the 2 percent tax ceiling should spark a flame.

"School board members and superintendents," Gaughan told me, "have a vested interest in preserving a broken system I think the people who should decide whether to consolidate school districts are the taxpayers who pay for the schools."

Makes sense to me.

Gaughan did it with politicians in recent years. He forced elected officials to let voters decide on downsizing town and village boards by getting enough petition signatures to prompt a public vote. Time and again, people voted for smaller government. They may vote to consolidate school districts, as well -- if they ever get the chance.

Gaughan did state lawmakers a favor last year by writing a prototype school district consolidation bill. He said he sent a copy to all 212 legislators. Not one had the guts to put it on the table.

"All the bill needs," Gaughan said, "is for someone to introduce it."

Legions of parents are waiting.