While the public may look at a town with four school districts and see an opportunity for consolidation, decreased state funding and increased state mandates make the idea much less likely.
That was the message Monday night from Rick Timbs, executive director of the Statewide School Finance Consortium, who moderated a forum featuring Cheektowaga’s four school boards in the Cleveland Hill High School auditorium.
Timbs spent much of the forum addressing the capacity crowd of about 150 people on the state’s history of providing financial aid to districts, contending that the lack of promised funding is crippling schools to the point of insolvency.
“I’ve watched Western New York enter a malaise for 40 years, and it’s accelerating now,” Timbs said. “There’s not a single wealthy school district in Western New York. Hard to believe, but it’s true.”
The financial inequality of the state’s funding formula, as well as the diminished value of New York’s mandated Foundation Aid, is forcing districts to consider drastic moves such as consolidation, according to Timbs. Cleveland Hill, for one, received only $8.1 million of its promised $12.8 million in Foundation Aid from the state this year. Similarly, Cheektowaga is short about $6.2 million, Maryvale $2.4 million and Sloan $3.8 million.
“The districts are getting millions less than they were in 2008-09,” Timbs said. “How are you supposed to operate? It’s unsustainable.”
With decreasing revenue, districts are forced to cut staff and programs while using their savings to offset tax increases, but Timbs said schools are running out of all three options. This is not only affecting the quality of education, he said, but the quality of life in the community.
“We could be leaner and meaner,” he said, “but no matter how much [districts] share, they will never be able to make up the losses. The loss is too big.”
Timbs also addressed the topic of consolidation. Consolidating Cheektowaga’s four districts – Cheektowaga Central, Cleveland Hill, Maryvale and Cheektowaga-Sloan – has been discussed among administrators over the last few months. The districts agreed to pursue a state efficiency grant that would examine a potential merger, but Timbs was quick to note that such a move may not save taxpayers money in the long term.
Timbs cited studies showing that although merging districts could combine resources, enhance programs and facilities, stabilize property taxes and attract better teachers, as well as earn fiscal incentives from the state, it also could raise unrealistic expectations for the new district.
In addition, he said, whatever incentives the new district would receive are only short-term, forcing administrators to face tightening budgets once again.
The districts “that are looking at mergers are doing so because they’re poor,” Timbs said. “If you merge two small poor districts, you get one large poor district.”
The issues facing school districts resonated beyond Cheektowaga on Monday. The West Seneca School Board moved its regularly scheduled Monday meeting from 6:30 p.m. to 5:30 so its seven members could head to Cleveland Hill.
It’s not that there are any plans for consolidation in West Seneca, trustees said, but there’s interest in hearing about the issues from a state perspective.
“We’re very interested in what Albany and what various people – the governor – and all have to say” about consolidation, board member Janice E. Dalbo said. “It’s kind of a hot topic in the state. ”
West Seneca is in the midst of a proposed intradistrict reconfiguration that would relocate students from East Elementary School to achieve a transition to a sixth- through eighth-grade middle school. Currently, the district has a middle school of grades 7 and 8.
The issue of reconfiguration, which has roiled parents in the district, was not raised at Monday’s meeting.
The board will host a second parent forum at 7 tonight in West Middle School, 395 Center Road. A vote on the issue is expected at a Feb. 11 meeting of the board.
News Staff Reporter T.J. Pignataro contributed to this report. email: firstname.lastname@example.org