In this era of declining school enrollment, increasing costs and tax increases limited by the tax cap imposed by New York State, consolidating school districts seems like a no-brainer.
But it also is usually a nonstarter.
Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz was the latest to take up the issue when he released a report on school district expenses and potential for consolidation.
Poloncarz is not the only one to call for merging or consolidating school districts. The issue comes up every few years, and some districts have looked at it. There have been four studies into consolidating school districts in Cheektowaga over the last 20 years, and each concluded a merger would not save enough money to undertake.
What exactly does Poloncarz want to do?
His goal is to save money. His 52-page report suggests reducing the number of school districts through consolidation "is a reasonable and realistic objective that demands serious consideration."
Why is the county executive weighing in? Does he have the standing to do anything about this?
He says he does. Here's why: The county gives school districts a portion of the county sales tax. That amounted to $136.71 million in the 2016-17 school year. Erie County also makes up the difference in unpaid property taxes for cities, towns, villages and school districts. Poloncarz also notes that Erie County taxpayers support school districts when they pay state income taxes and local and county property taxes. And, he adds, school taxes are the biggest chunk of property taxes residents pay.
What districts does he suggest could merge?
He lays out three possible mergers: Cheektowaga Central, Maryvale, Cleveland Hill, Sloan and Depew into one district; Eden and North Collins into another; and Akron and Alden into a third. One study from Syracuse University's Maxwell School Center for Policy Research that Poloncarz quotes says smaller districts yield greater savings. He also lists 12 smaller districts in Erie County that would have the greatest net savings.
There are a lot of school districts in Cheektowaga. Won't they save money by merging?
There are savings in some areas. Poloncarz estimated a savings in administrative costs of $1.29 million in the first year. But there are costs, too.
The five Cheektowaga districts looked at consolidating four years ago. One of the biggest costs was to equalize the labor contracts for teachers and staff, and in previous consolidations, that has meant bringing the lowest-paid employees up to the level of the district that pays the most. That alone was estimated to cost $9.75 million in the first year, and well over $90 million over 10 years, according to Cleveland Hill Superintendent Jon MacSwan. They stopped talking about merging, but they do share services, including special education classes, technology, purchasing, staff development and joining a consortium for health care, energy purchases and workers compensation.
If districts that merge with other districts get a lot of money as an incentive, why don't more do it?
The short answer is because the money eventually goes away. State aid will increase by 40 percent for five years for the newly consolidated district. Some newly formed districts build a school or transportation hub, or they put the extra money in reserve accounts.
But in year six, the extra aid starts getting reduced every year until it disappears by year 15. A study by the New York Statewide School Finance Consortium found that within 15 years of the consolidation, taxes that had been low started to rise to the level of other districts. The districts used up reserves, and residents sometimes get resentful and even hostile as taxes, which had been kept artificially low by state aid, start increasing, according to the study.
Why don't more districts merge?
A 2014 study by the state Association of School Business Officials found 12 mergers took place throughout the state from 1996 to 2014. Fifteen others were rejected from 2010 to 2014.
The state Education Department lays out why consolidating districts is difficult, including the fear of losing local identity, the perception that one district will benefit more than the other, uncertainty that the new board and district will operate as proposed, belief that a larger student body will result in less personal attention and opportunity for extracurricular activities and sports, concern that the new district will cost more, concern that bus rides will be longer and a fear of employees that they will lose job security.
Shouldn't it be up to voters to decide?
They do vote. There has to be an indication of public support for the merger, and usually this is done through a straw poll, though petitions can be used. If voters in each district approve, there is a second vote in each district.
What districts have merged recently?
The last successful merger in Western New York was Little Valley and Cattaraugus, which became Cattaraugus-Little Valley in 2000, according to the business officials group. Three mergers in Western New York have been rejected by voters, including Scio and Wellsville in Allegany County in 2010, Brocton and Westfield in Chautauqua County in 2013. A straw poll last November about consolidating Clymer and Panama passed in Panama and was defeated by Clymer voters.
Poloncarz said he wants to change the law. Could that happen?
One thing he suggested was amending state law to eliminate the requirement that votes on consolidation take place in each district. If one district votes it down, the proposal is dead. He suggested counting all the ballots in every district in one unified vote. That's the way merger votes took place until the laws was changed in 1989.
He also suggested instead of consolidation initiatives coming from school boards, allowing county shared services panels or voter referendums to to initiate school consolidation.
The changes would have to be put forward by state legislators and gain approval from the Senate, Assembly and governor.