Superintendents of four Cheektowaga school districts agreed Thursday that it’s time to study merging their districts.
After a 20 percent loss in the town’s population in the last decade, schools in the first-ring suburban community of 75,000 often are seen as merger-ready. All or parts of eight school districts are located within the town’s borders.
“None of the four of us are against consolidation,” Cheektowaga-Sloan Superintendent James P. Mazgajewski said Thursday.
“I think we should do the study,” Cleveland Hill Superintendent Jon MacSwan said.
Cheektowaga-Maryvale Superintendent Deborah A. Ziolkowski and Cheektowaga Central Superintendent Dennis Kane nodded in agreement.
They spoke about merging, or school district reorganization, at a meeting of the Cheektowaga Chamber of Commerce at the Holiday Inn Airport.
It’s a familiar subject.
At least three similar studies have been conducted in the last 14 years, each finding that a merger would not produce major cost savings. A 2009 study by the University at Buffalo’s Regional Institute found that only districts with smaller enrollments are likely to accrue substantial cost savings through district mergers.
But in the atmosphere of rising taxes and fewer people to pay them, the Cheektowaga Town Board in August urged the four districts to undertake another study.
School enrollment was down in three of the districts in the decade from 2001 to 2011, according to state Education Department statistics. Only Sloan’s increased slightly, although the Sloan and Cheektowaga Central superintendents said their kindergartens have grown in the past couple years, and if that continues, they predict steady or growing enrollment in the future.
At the same time, school budgets have risen from 25 percent for Maryvale to nearly 70 percent for Sloan. The number of students needing special-education services has risen, as has the number of students living in poverty. Salaries and pensions also have risen. And despite the state imposed tax cap, there has been very little relief from state and federal mandates, the educators said.
But costs are what matter to residents, like the Rev. Rick Maisano of the Dick-Urban Taxpayers Association.
“We can’t afford any more,” he said. “How do I go to my neighbors who can’t afford their tax bill?”
Mazgajewski agreed costs are high. He grew up in the Sloan district, his parents lived there, and his 90-year-old mother-in-law still lives there, he said.
“I know the difficulties people are having,” he said. “I don’t like to go to my mother-in-law and say ‘You have to pay more, Mom.’ ”
The districts do work together to save money, they said. They cooperate on staff development, have exam scoring teams that help each other and have distance learning opportunities, MacSwan said. Cleveland Hill and Sloan share a director of buildings and grounds and share workers’ compensation costs, and the districts buy health insurance and energy from consortiums that keep prices down. They share special-education services and go through BOCES for central purchasing, technology and equipment inventory.
There’s not a week goes by that the superintendents aren’t talking or emailing one another, MacSwan said.
Kane said Cheektowaga Central does some banking in the Hudson Valley. “Collaboration doesn’t necessarily mean collaboration next door,” he said.
If the four districts reorganized into one, it would have about 7,500 students and become the third-largest district in Erie County outside Buffalo.
The four school district budgets now total about $138 million, the superintendents said.
If they consolidated, the new district might look forward to more than $125 million in aid over 13 years. And then the extra aid would be gone, but the district would have to endure.
“The real benefit will be beating the cap,” Mazgajewski said.
But he also addressed the big question in Cheektowaga: Would Cheektowaga and Maryvale want to merge with Sloan and Cleveland Hill, because their taxes would go up?
“Are they going to vote for that?” he said.
Any consolidation requires the approval of all the affected districts.
If the school boards decide the idea has merit, they must commission a joint study. The school boards in Cheektowaga are meeting Oct. 29 and are to discuss the idea. Then each district would have to approve the study. The districts don’t want to pay for the $50,000 to $60,000 cost, so they are hoping state legislators can identify some funds.
After the study is released, districts involved in consolidation would educate the public, and either through petitions or a straw vote, gauge public support. If the public is in favor, a formal referendum would be held.
Proponents have touted additional courses, particularly in core areas; a full contingent of modified, junior varsity and varsity sports; and a wide range of clubs available in the new district.
Local educators also watched with interest the vote in Herkimer County on Thursday, where residents in Herkimer, Ilion and Mohawk school districts, were voting on whether the districts should merge. Results were unavailable late Thursday.