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Poloncarz pushes school district mergers as way to save taxpayers millions

Erie County taxpayers forked over $1.8 billion in taxes last year.

But if you think most of that money goes to your county, city, town or village, you're wrong, County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz said.

School districts and special districts like fire and sewer districts collect nearly two-thirds of the taxes Erie County residents pay, the county executive said. But unlike local governments, these groups are under no orders from the state to find ways to save money by working together.

Poloncarz said that has to change. He plans to use his State of the County address today at the Buffalo Museum of Science auditorium to push that conversation – starting with getting school superintendents to discuss the possibility of district mergers.

"We have an antiquated system from when horses shared the roads with Model Ts," Poloncarz told The Buffalo News.

There has to be a way to safeguard every dollar that goes toward students, teachers and school buildings while still merging or consolidating top-level bureaucracies, he said.

Poloncarz pointed to Cheektowaga as a "poster child" for redundant and inefficient administrative leadership in education. The town has lost tens of thousands of residents since its population peak in 1970, he said, yet it still maintains five school districts: Cheektowaga Central, Maryvale, Cheektowaga-Sloan Cleveland Hill and Depew.

Meanwhile, the Williamsville school district serves 1,000 more students than the five Cheektowaga districts combined but spends $2.3 million less in administrative costs, he said. The towns of Tonawanda and West Seneca have only one major school district each.

"People don't really care who the superintendent is," Poloncarz said. "They just want to know their kids are being educated well. Even if you don't reduce taxes, more money would be spent on direct educational costs. If you knew that, wouldn't you at least want to have a discussion about it?"

It's no coincidence that Cheektowaga not only has the most school districts of any town, but also the most taxpayer associations, he said.

Small-level consolidations have been tried. But merging entire districts has proven an insurmountable obstacle. In 2014, Cheektowaga school officials pointed to three studies showing that a merger would not yield substantial savings.

Instead, smaller suburban districts have considered smaller efforts like merging weak athletic programs and studied ways to share transportation costs.

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, school officials have previously said.

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

Poloncarz's interest in championing this issue comes even though county government has no say in how school districts are run and a limited say in how they are funded. Any requirement that school district leaders come together to find a way to merge or consolidate services would need to come from the state.

Poloncarz has seen no indication that state lawmakers or the governor are interested in forcing the issue, though school districts are eligible for up to 40 percent more state aid if they agree to a major consolidation of services.

But the conversation has to start somewhere, he said. It's not going to start with the people who run the school districts now, he said.

"Who else is going to bring this up?" he said. "The people who are actually in control aren't going to talk about giving up control."

Directing public attention to the broader pattern of how taxes are distributed locally meets a practical need for the county executive. It reminds the public that school districts, not county government, collect the lion's share of local taxes even though the amount of money the county collects in taxes each year has been rising.

"We don't really have a whole lot of area to nip and tuck anymore," Poloncarz said.

Someone needs to have the political will to raise the issue, Poloncarz said.

"I can be a convener. I can help move this along," he said. "Will I be successful on this? I don't know. I'm going to get pushback. But I guarantee there are many in the community who will say this is a conversation we need to have."

The governor has already laid out a framework to get public organizations to the table, Poloncarz noted.

Last year, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo ordered the heads of local governments to meet and find ways to share and merge public services. In August, the Erie County's Shared Services Panel came up with 22 ways to work together to save taxpayers up to $4.5 million. The list included everything from sharing snowplow and grass cutting services to merging animal control operations.

Local government leaders come up with 22 ideas to share services, save $4.5 million

Poloncarz cited ongoing discussions at the state level about making shared services panels permanent for local governments. He's calling on the governor and state Senate and Assembly members to include school, fire and other special districts.

Within the next few weeks his office will release what Poloncarz calls an "eye-opening" study outlining how much Erie County school districts spend on districtwide administrative costs. The study will make the case that millions could be saved if school districts would spend less time guarding their own turf and more time finding ways to merge services or entire districts.

If no one is willing to come to the table, he said, it may be time for the county to take a harder look at how it shares it sales tax with school districts. That's one of the few areas where the county has leverage over districts.

Erie County is one of only six counties that shares its sales tax revenue with local school districts. The last time the county tried to withhold sales tax money from districts was in 2006, when, in an effort to provide a long-term balanced budget plan to the county control board, then County Executive Joel A. Giambra suggested withholding all the sales tax revenue it passes on to schools. That effort was unsuccessful.

Revisiting the 18 percent of sales tax money the county shares with school districts would be a "nuclear option," Poloncarz said.

But it's not off the table.

He emphasized that he doesn't envision any district mergers involving closing schools, cutting teachers or otherwise affecting direct classroom aid. He also said he doesn't have the answers on the best way to go about such consolidations and doesn't believe the creation of a countywide school district is politically realistic.

Poloncarz said he plans to wield whatever political influence he has to push key players to identify what steps are doable and figure out how to accomplish them.

"You can't constantly say our government is too big, our systems are too bloated, and not do anything about it," he said.

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