Westfield Voters Come Out Of The ‘Woodwork’

Brocton businessman and Chautauqua Lake school board member Jay Baker had prepared himself for the disappointing result from the proposed Brocton and Westfield school merger on Wednesday evening. “I wish I had been more surprised by the news,” he said by telephone on Thursday morning.

Baker has been in the trenches in the past when it comes to school mergers. He was one of the leading advocates in getting the communities of Chautauqua and Mayville to agree to becoming united as one.

It was not easy.

“School merger votes really pull at the emotional side of the voter,” Baker said. “Those who go in and pull the lever for ‘yes,’ that is the exceptional voters.

Overall, there were plenty of “exceptional” voters. Of the total 1,942 who voted, 1,150 said “yes” – that is more than 59 percent. Only 792 said “no.”

In any other election in New York state, the referendum would have passed and democracy would have been served. School mergers, however, are always at a disadvantage at the voting booth. Not only do you need two votes, a straw vote comes first to find out if support is evident and another vote to make the merger official, but you also need a “yes” vote from both communities twice.

This vote was 75 percent positive, not the 100 percent needed for the merger to happen.

Baker remembers getting past those challenges – and uncertainties – in 1994 when the vote to form what would later be named Chautauqua Lake Central School was approved. “The first straw vote, we had the largest turnout ever, by 300 to 400 voters,” he said. “You don’t know who will come out of the woodwork. (A school merger vote) may be the first time a person votes.”

To combat the large number of unknown voters, Baker and a group of merger supporters put together a newsletter that was mailed to district residents. It focused on the positives of consolidation for both Chautauqua and Mayville and included the names of residents from both communities who backed the plan.

Things could have taken a turn for the worse when the Chautauqua school board, only weeks before the final consolidation vote, unanimously rejected the merger with Mayville. Baker’s group then did another newsletter and doubled the names of residents supporting the merger right before the vote.

“Somebody in Westfield, who is disappointed by the result, has to form the same type of group,” Baker said.

That disappointment has been evident since Wednesday night. A number of Westfield school leaders, parents and students have a sense of being letdown by the vote.

Where do both districts go from here? Good question.

Brocton has been at the tipping point for the last three years. Westfield’s business manager Alan Holbrook said at a recent meeting the district will become fiscally insolvent – or bankrupt – in 2018-19.

Do residents who voted “no” have a better option moving forward? If they did, no one made any recommendation.

Baker, whose Chautauqua Lake district received nearly $80 million from New York state in incentive aid thanks to the merger over about 15 years, says the tax cap presents a real dilemma for all 18 districts in this County.

“There’s only so much money (for districts),” he said. “The reality is, without a merger, there will be fewer people to teach and fewer offerings.”

And, Baker quickly notes, there is no more cash coming – from New York state or from the local tax base.

“Attrition (of staff and curriculum) is here,” he said. “Voting ‘no’ does not change this.”

Which gets us back to Wednesday night. More than 700 voters did a disservice to students and the financial future of the Westfield school district. Fear likely played a large role for a number of voters in their rejection of the plan.

But residents’ real fears will soon be even more apparent when hard times hit the school district and programs have to be slashed even more. That’s something very real – and very scary.

John D’Agostino is the Dunkirk OBSERVER publisher. Send comments to jdagostino@observertoday.com or call 366-3000, ext. 401.