BUFFALO – Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz used his annual State of the County Address Thursday afternoon to start a conversation – let’s merge school districts and other special districts.
Mr. Poloncarz used Cheektowaga’s five different school districts – Cheektowaga Central, Cheektowaga-Sloan, Cleveland Hill, Depew, and Maryvale – as an example as to how merging or consolidating the top-level bureaucracies that run the districts could save the taxpayers money in the long run.
“Between 2000 and 2010 Cheektowaga saw a drop in children aged 17 and under by nearly 15% and that trend has grown throughout this decade as well,” said Mr. Poloncarz. “Why does Tonawanda – who has less population than Cheektowaga, or West Seneca – each have one major school district serving its residents.”
His office is set to release a study outlining how much school districts countywide pay in administration costs and it will show how much money could be saved if certain districts merged. Of the county’s $1.8 billion tax levy – 64% comes from school and special districts.
Mr. Poloncarz also says leaders at the state level need to hold special districts like school and fire districts to the same requirement to participate in the state’s mandated shared services panel.
“If you really want to reduce the cost of government in Erie County you must include the taxing districts, school and special districts that make up more than 60% of the taxes you all pay. It’s as simple as that,” said Mr. Poloncarz.
“I applaud the county executive for bringing this issue to the forefront,” said Assemblymember Monica Wallace. “We should always be talking about ways that we can save taxpayer dollars and look at ways to reduce the taxpayer burden.”
Ms. Wallace has had conversations with the school districts in the 143rd district about sharing services and she will be taking ideas back to Albany to help further shared services. But would reducing the number of school districts reduce the taxpayer’s burden?
“I think sharing more administrative cost most certainly will, but if you’re going to keep the same number of schools open and you’re not going to eliminate any teachers and you’re going to have the same heating costs how much are you really going to save,” added Ms. Wallace.
Been There, Done That
The issue of school consolidation is nothing new. The topic has been a discussion all across New York State for the better part of a decade and according to the five Cheektowaga superintendents, studies to merge their schools have already been done.
“We are disappointed that this matter was brought up again without any discussion with representatives from the Erie County school districts,” the superintendents told Cheektowaga Chronicle in a joint statement released Thursday.
“The topic of school reorganization, consolidation and merger is not new, and has been explored multiple times. Most recently in February of 2014, after then State Assemblyman Dennis Gabryszak brought it up, the Boards of Education representing the four school districts in Cheektowaga passed resolutions asking for the State to come in and determine the cost versus savings and the educational impacts of a consolidation plan for the districts. The application was turned down.”
The superintendents also pointed to a similar 1989 study and a 2009 University at Buffalo study which would “erode potential operational savings, and in some cases trigger size related inefficiencies.”
Cheektowaga Schools Combine Services
Over the past several years the school districts have begun purchase healthcare, school supplies and bid on transportation contracts together. They also participate in cost-saving measures by combining services through Erie 1 BOCES.
The Board of Cooperative Educational Services helps school districts contain costs by assisting them with district office functions such as cooperative purchasing, health insurance benefits, policy development, and technology services.
The superintendents say they have taken advantage of the following:
- Cooperative bidding of materials and supplies such as copy machines, computers, IPads, chrome books and technology related items.
- Participation in Special Education Services to best meet the needs of students with disabilities which is cost effective.
- Participation in career and technical learning services with numerous possibilities (example: auto tech, cosmetology, electrical robotics, welding etc.) for students while sharing the capital and teaching costs of such learning.
- Participation in the sharing of certain required staff such as ENL teachers, occupational therapists, physical therapists, speech, hearing and vision teachers, etc. – this allows us to share staff as opposed to hiring our own.
- Participation in activities such as policy development, teacher training and development, labor relations, and administrative services.
State Will Give Money for Mergers
New York State’s education department does fund merger studies for any districts that are interested in joining together. The State also offers increased funding for schools that consolidate.
That includes a 40 percent increase in operating aid for five years as an incentive and to cover any merger costs. There is also aid worked out into the State budget proposals that would cover a portion of building costs for any districts that reorganize.
The Board of Regents has also pushed for lawmakers to earmark some of the billions the State has gotten from financial settlements to use towards incentives for districts that merge. (Funds have already been set aside for municipalities that merge across New York.)
But history has shown most school districts – even when offered money to merge – don’t.
William Silky, a merger consultant told the Syracuse Post-Standard that communities fear the loss of control and community identity, unions can object, and there could be contentious athletic rivalries and a disparity in tax rates.