Poloncarz starts school merger conversation

Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz releases his report on school district expenses on April 16. (Jim Herr/Cheektowaga Chronicle)
Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz releases his report on school district expenses on April 16. (Jim Herr/Cheektowaga Chronicle)

BUFFALO – Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz is spearheading a controversial conversation which he hopes would encourage select school districts to think about merging together to reduce administrative costs and reduce the overall financial burden on Erie County taxpayers.

“We do believe that in the smaller districts – including some of the rural areas – there are substantial savings that could materialize as a result of consolidation, especially in the administration area,” said Mr. Poloncarz.

He says the unnecessary administrative costs that exist in communities like Cheektowaga with five individual school districts are the prime example of why leaders should be having the conversation.

“Cheektowaga is the case study. They should have addressed it in the past, but they didn’t,” said Mr. Poloncarz.  “These districts are going to continue to lose population. We are growing in Erie County, but Cheektowaga is not a community that is growing, and we know there are not as many children going to these schools are there was ten years ago nevertheless what there was 20 years ago.”

The county executive said enrollment figures for the school districts are down for the ten year period between 2007 and 2017.  Cheektowaga Central lost 15% of its students; Sloan 21%; Cleveland Hill 24%; Maryvale 11%; and Depew 25%.

“I don’t have the power to force [consolidation] but these districts need to consider it because they’re losing population, and when you lose population there’s less people to pay for the cost associated with the district.”

If tax bills continue to rise and people are not able to pay them, Mr. Poloncarz says county taxpayers as a whole are on the hook for 100% of the tax levy issued by the school districts.

“Erie County makes the school districts whole. If by chance the population decided that half of us are no longer going to pay our taxes, under the law that exists today, Erie County has to make the towns, villages, and schools districts whole for their taxes.”

 

The tax levies are set by each school board and voted on by the district’s taxpayers each year.  But, an alarming example of taxpayer apathy was brought to Mr. Poloncarz’s attention by Cheektowaga Chronicle.  On average, less than 500 people determined the outcome for each school district budget vote in Cheektowaga last year.

According to our reporting, 559 residents voted in the budget election for Cheektowaga-Sloan; 482 voted in Cheektowaga Central; 288 in Cleveland Hill; and 469 in Depew.  Maryvale did not share statistics last year.

“That’s really scary,” said Mr. Poloncarz. “We need to have more participation there’s no doubt about it, but I guarantee you if two of these districts started moving ahead, there would be more votes because people would know more about it.”

The example of merging the Cheektowaga schools was given because they, along with the school districts of North Collins and Eden, were examples of past merger studies.  Mr. Poloncarz’s study also looks at merging Akron and Alden based on their administrative costs and the fact they’re right next to each other geographically.

“We’re not making recommendations saying these districts must do it.  These are three examples where we identified savings. We know there are additional savings that could materialize in other places and moreover, we owe our constituents this work not only for myself but for the school districts and the students that they represent because it’s all our tax dollars.”

Mr. Poloncarz announced today that he would be hosting three shared services panel discussions for school districts this summer.  They will mirror the ones that were mandated for local municipalities by the state last year.  He told reporters that he would invite the superintendent and school board president from each of the 32 school districts in Erie County.

“We want the president of the school board and the superintendent there so that we can bring school districts together to talk about this and find ways for them to look at this issue, potentially consolidate, and if not even consolidate, find additional ways in which they can share services.”

The superintendents of the Cheektowaga schools are looking forward to the county executive’s panels.  Cleveland Hill Superintendent Jon MacSwan speaking for the delegation says “We are all looking forward to working with the county as they begin their Local Government Efficiency and Shared Services Initiative.  Since school districts have experience in this initiative already completing this work a couple of years ago, we believe that we can be a valuable resource and partner.”    

View the report here.

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