Eighteen Districts Isn’t Best Option For Students

Two good friends came back to live in Chautauqua County for one primary reason – they wanted a better education for their children. One was living in Louisiana, the other in Florida. They said that the reputation of the public school systems in those states was not good. Their children went to Chautauqua County public schools, graduated from high school and all were accepted into excellent universities. Our public schools are probably our best recruiting tool when it comes to getting young people to move here. It was one of the reasons I moved back to Chautauqua County.

I graduated from Jamestown High School. I loved the place. It was a microcosm of America. There were rich kids, poor kids, good kids, bad kids, kids headed for college, kids heading into the work force, most of them, like me, were in the “middle of the pack,” – everyone was mixed together. After I left the area to attend college, I found that my background in a Chautauqua County public school had given me a tremendous foundation for what I found as I traveled around the country. What I had experienced here represented what was happening across America. Our schools are still that way. I remain a big supporter of the way we educate kids in this “body politic.”

Having said that, I found out a couple of things in researching data on our current school systems which should concern all of us, and they are interrelated. (1) We haven’t changed the organizational structure in the way we provide public education; and (2) This has occurred despite declining student enrollments.

We still have 18 separate school districts in this county providing public education. A New York State master plan in 1947 set the stage whereby, by the 1950s, most local town schools were essentially eliminated in favor of “centralized” schools. The returning veterans from World War II and public school advocates wanted their children to have an educational opportunity which went beyond the one-room school house. This system of larger, centralized schools went into effect and, with the addition of BOCES for technical training, has been with us ever since. Yet, in some ways, it has become a strait jacket. The only consolidation since those early days, in my memory, was the merger of the Chautauqua and Mayville school systems into the Chautauqua Lake district.

If we lived in the state of Virginia, we would have one county school district with various community schools located within it. Here in Chautauqua County we have 18 separate school districts, each with its own administrative staff. I checked on the salary we pay each of the 18 chief school officers in the county. The salaries range from $165,000 per year to $105,000 per year. The average district superintendent of schools is paid $128,000 per year. I don’t really have a problem with paying those heading up our schools a good wage. I just question whether we need to replicate it 18 times. Our Chautauqua County executive, who in my view is underpaid, makes $85,000 per year to administer our non-education, countywide government. Yet, it takes us $2,312,000 to pay our combined executives who run the schools in this county. Is this really necessary or desirable? I expect that the reason we have 18 school administrators is because we have always done it this way … at least since the 1950s. We don’t like to change things that are in place. We get comfortable with the way things are.

But, the more important concern I discovered in looking at our schools was declining enrollment. I looked at five different school districts: Bemus Point, Chautauqua Lake, Jamestown, Ripley and Southwestern. These school systems, since 1998, have had an average decline in enrollment of 22 percent in students attending school (kindergarten to grade 12.)

District1998 Enrollment2010 EnrollmentPercent Decline

Bemus Point 896744-17 percent

Chautauqua Lake1,068778-27 percent

Jamestown 5,5324,977-10 percent

Ripley453314-31 percent

Southwestern1,8821,400-26 percent

I am not a great believer in “bigness,” but it is obviously easier to downsize and still offer a quality education if you have a larger district. Thus, Jamestown can deal with student enrollment decline better than Ripley.

I read recently in this newspaper that because of declining enrollment Bemus Point and Chautauqua Lake had combined their football programs. Rather than sports, a more overriding concern should be the availability of college preparatory courses in small schools. Can a school district of only 700 children offer the kind of language courses, science and math instruction and what we used to call “AP” classes to get kids ready for college? We want our kids to be challenged in sports, but the bigger issue is getting them ready for the world beyond high school.

I am not sure if there is a magic number for the size of a school system. If you combine the enrollment at Bemus Point and Chautauqua Lake, it comes to about 1500 students, K-12. There has to be a “size” though that works for both quality education and quality sports. One thing for sure is that we don’t need 18 separate school districts in this county to address the problem.

A Chautauqua County resident interested in analyzing public policy from a long term perspective writes these views under the name Hall Elliot.