School district administrators have had to make some tough financial choices in the past few years. But those difficulties pale in comparison to what’s ahead, thanks to the state’s tax cap and a struggling economy. That looming financial disaster demands that districts look at what was once considered the impossible – consolidations.
Civic leader Kevin Gaughan has done the research that shows that Erie County, with a population of about 900,000, has 27 school districts, and 17 of those districts have fewer than 3,000 students each. That compares to similar counties elsewhere that manage with an average of just nine school districts. Moreover, Erie County’s 27 school districts sustained a loss of 25,000 students from 2001 to 2010, with no sign that trend will be reversed.
Gaughan wants to see an extension of the right of referendum by petition to give residents a chance to decide that school consolidation is a better future than draconian cuts in education.
In that vein, four school districts in Cheektowaga – Cheektowaga Central, Cleveland Hill, Maryvale and Cheektowaga-Sloan – are pursuing a state efficiency grant that would allow them to examine a possible merger. District representatives have discussed the matter with Town of Cheektowaga leaders in addition to state officials.
At a forum last week, members of the four Cheektowaga school boards discussed the issues they face. The session was moderated by Rick Timbs, executive director of the Statewide School Finance Consortium, who said: “I’ve watched Western New York enter a malaise for 40 years, and it’s accelerating now.”
He said consolidation might not save the districts much money, but it could allow them to combine resources, enhance programs and facilities, stabilize property taxes and attract better teachers. That seems like plenty of reason to take a long look at consolidation.
A day later, West Seneca Central School Board members met to review the recommendation to close East Elementary School and reconfigure East Middle School to accommodate students in grades five through eight.
While parents expressed opposition to the plan, Superintendent Mark J. Crawford told them state aid is dropping as enrollment has declined from about 15,500 students 40 years ago to about 6,800.
This sort of frank talk will be required as school officials grapple with the legacy costs of lifetime health care and pension packages for retirees. Add in the cap on property tax increases and districts are finding themselves caught in a perfect financial storm.
So why, then, continue to sustain a system of 27 school districts, along with two Boards of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) in Erie County?
Maintaining all those districts while costs skyrocket and enrollment drops is not sustainable.
Half of school superintendents statewide who responded to a recent financial survey said they think their district will be insolvent within four years. The picture will only worsen as districts fall deeper into a financial hole.
Some districts are already sharing administrative services. A couple of years ago, the Akron Central School District began sharing its transportation supervisor with Clarence Central. The Grand Island and Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda school districts followed suit. And Ken-Ton has one shared program supervisor.
These are but a few examples of shared services. Such sharing is helpful, but will it be enough? Some states, including Maryland and Virginia, have countywide school districts, a model that reduces the number of high-paid administrators.
One countywide district is asking too much here. But now is the time for districts with similar populations and educational goals to talk seriously about sharing services, and ultimately involve residents in a discussion about consolidating.
As Gaughan said, the reality here is that every year, every school district is taking more and more money from fewer and fewer people to educate fewer and fewer students. That’s a business model for failure.