Most Area School Districts Not Ready To Combine

Despite facing another year of budget cuts and gap elimination adjustments, most area school district officials are not ready to consider mergers.

When asked for their respective school districts’ leanings toward or away from the idea of mergers, several local superintendents responded by saying their districts would rather consider a variety of shared services before taking that final step.

“There are no hardfast plans to merge with anybody at this point,” said Kaine Kelly, superintendent of Sherman Central School. “As far as mergers go, you have to look at it as a sustainability piece where we’re looking to do whatever we can to provide the best possible education to our students. In our current situation, we’ve been turning to shared services to do just that, in order to increase opportunities for our students and be more cost-effective to our taxpayers. That’s not to say the (Board of Education) is against mergers or think it’s a bad idea, it just hasn’t been the method we’ve chosen, to this point, to accomplish the education goals we’ve set.”

Pete Morgante, superintendent of Pine Valley Central School, echoed Sherman’s philosophy regarding shared services.

“As of today, we’re not interested in merging at all,” Morgante said. “We’re not looking at a merger, but we’re looking at opportunities for (combined) sports more than anything else. We swim with Frewsburg and we wrestle with Cattaraugus-Little Valley.”

“This year we’re exploring more combined sports options,” Morgante continued.

Morgante added that pursuing and successfully implementing a merger is more difficult than it sounds.

“It sounds easy, but it’s really more of a difficult thing to pull off,” Morgante said. “One reason is geography. In terms of location, I’m not sure who we could merge with. And we’re happy with the school we have, and our financial situation doesn’t warrant it.”

In the opinion of Steve Penhollow, Falconer Central School superintendent, district mergers are not a solution to the problem of public schools’ financial aid insufficiencies as created by the state.

“Merging a district, or consolidating administrative positions, is not going to save (Falconer) the $1.1 million we’ve been reduced,” Penhollow said in reference to the district’s GEA. “Rural schools in Chautauqua and Cattaraugus counties are facing much greater reductions than schools in other parts of the state, and when all of these things come into play, there’s no possible way to alleviate those reductions. At some point, I think there will be districts in New York state that look at those types of things, but typically mergers haven’t been proven to be a huge cost savings for districts.”

According to a New York State School Boards Association report entitled, “To Merge or Not to Merge,” the pros and cons of merging vary depending on each school’s financial situation. The report said smaller, financially strapped districts are the best candidates.

The report found that losses in state aid and the local property tax cap have forced some districts to eliminate teaching and support staff positions, affecting their ability to provide elective courses and, in some cases, core courses as well. By merging, the report said, these districts might be better able to offer a wider variety of educational programs and courses than they would otherwise. However, some districts expressed concerns, such as loss of community identity and longer bus rides, as drawbacks to merging.

Timothy Kremer, NYSSBA executive director, said the decision to merge must be explored at the local level on an individual basis.

“School leaders are being forced to look at alternative ways to provide student services with fewer resources,” Kremer said. “Decisions about mergers and consolidations should be made locally. It is the students, parents, taxpayers and employees in the school district who are most affected.”

The report can be found on the NYSSBA website at www.nyssba.org.