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Education commissioner likes Poloncarz's school district merger talk

Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz may have a supporter in his discussion about merging school districts and consolidating services: State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia.

But the commissioner is curious how the county executive is going to make it happen.

“The reality is how do you get to that and have people agree that they want to do it?” Elia said.

Elia, during a visit with The Buffalo News Editorial Board on Friday, was asked about the county executive’s new effort to set the table for more discussion on this issue.

“I think it’s a good idea, at least to the extent you can start doing some of those shared services,” Elia said.

However, the commissioner also acknowledged that the state has legislation on the books that would provide incentives for consolidation, but there’s been little response from districts around the state.

“Since I have been here it has not occurred, because in the legislation it requires the vote of the public in the district and what they believe they’re giving up is the identity of the district – and they don’t want to do that,” Elia said. “In New York State, that is a long-held value.”

Poloncarz pushes school district mergers as way to save taxpayers millions

The commissioner also touched on several other education issues during the wide-ranging, 45-minute meeting. They included:

  • State budget. The commissioner outlined the Education Department’s budget agenda for the next school year, which includes advocating for a 6.3 percent increase in aid. That includes additional funding for career and technical programs, universal pre-K programs and for districts with large numbers of English language learners.
  • State assessments. Testing in math and English language arts for students in grades 3 to 8 are less than a month away and Elia noted this will be the first year all the questions will have been written by New York State teachers. Like last year, the testing for both math and ELA will be over two days, instead of three, which she called a "substantial shift."
  • The Buffalo Public Schools. "I was in schools two years ago and I was in schools today and I saw some major shifts," Elia said. "It doesn't happen overnight. The results of the district's reform efforts, she said, are not in yet. "But we've seen that, in fact, they're improving and the foundational work that needs to be done is getting done," she said.
  • Partnership with UB. Elia said she met Friday with the University at Buffalo's president and dean of the Graduate School of Education, which will partner with Buffalo schools in helping turn around BUILD Academy on the city's East Side. "Both of them are all in to support our schools here, particularly BUILD Academy, which was one of the lowest-scoring schools in the state," Elia said. "We have become much more proactive with that school and they guaranteed they're going to be great partners with us."

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