The merger of Cheektowaga’s four school districts is an idea that has been around for years. What makes the latest push different is the public acknowledgement from the superintendents of all four districts that an examination of a merger is necessary.
That discussion should be encouraged in a county that is home to 27 independent school districts, most of which are dealing with declining student populations and increasing budget problems, including a tax cap, state mandates they have no control over and crushing legacy costs for pensions and health care.
In a recent News article, Cheektowaga-Sloan Superintendent James P. Mazgajewski stated: “None of the four of us are against consolidation.”
We’ll take that as a step in the right direction.
The superintendents of the other districts, Cheektowaga Central, Maryvale and Cleveland Hill, indicated their agreement.
Back in August, the Cheektowaga Town Board urged such a study, which would be just the latest in a series of efforts looking into whether to merge the districts. Previous studies, at least three in the last 14 years, each found that a merger would not produce major cost savings. However, the new fiscal realities mean it’s worth taking another look.
While a merger would lower costs in some districts, it would raise them in others. Cheektowaga and Maryvale may not want to merge with Sloan and Cleveland Hill because their taxes would increase.
Having one superintendent overseeing education in the whole town would inevitably diminish local control of schools. And a merger would surely involve an effort to increase teachers’ salaries to the level of the district with the most generous pay scales. However, in the wake of rising school budgets driven by higher costs for such things as services for special education, salaries and pensions, the districts have to consider the long view.
Part of that bigger picture involves beating the Albany-imposed tax cap, as Mazgajewski said. The cap is meant to tamp down increases in property taxes; that, in turn, often results in cuts to programs deemed enhancing, but not mandated. A single district could, proponents say, provide additional courses, especially in core areas.
Consolidation requires the approval of all affected districts. It’s a long process and involves the commissioning of a joint study costing in the neighborhood of $50,000 to $60,000. The state should pick up that tab. After all, savings from consolidation can also pay off for the state.
The results of the study would go to the public for comment. If there is enough interest in consolidation, the matter would be put to a formal referendum.
The study would be worthwhile not only in Cheektowaga, but for other school districts grappling with the same issues.
The word “merger” has never been popular around here, but now the major stakeholders are willing to consider it. A new study will show whether it is the way forward for a cluster of districts serving fewer students.
Economic times have changed drastically, and the delivery of a high-quality education can’t automatically mean maintaining the status quo.