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Albany’s Flawed Rules Limit Potential School Mergers | News, Sports, Jobs

This is an open letter to Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli:

I read with interest the recent Post-Journal article in which it was said that you believe that if taxpayers want to save money, they should consolidate schools. As a taxpayer, I’m always in favor of saving money. As a parent of three children who have gone through the New York State school system, I always believe in educational rigor that will prepare all students for college or a career. To help achieve these goals, I served on a local school board for 11 years and was elected president for eight of those years. I have been deeply involved in two school mergers in Chautauqua County and have seen many others in neighboring districts go up in flames. The good citizens of Chautauqua County have repeatedly wanted to lower their taxes via school consolidation, but have been blocked by the unique and flawed process dictated to them by Albany regulations.

My intimate involvement in the process shows the following flaws in the school merger process that you advocate:

¯ The fusion system is rigged for failure. There are many steps that stop the whole merger process in its tracks, like the 8 separate votes that all have to pass. The article cites a county merger that “was shot before a formal proposal reached voters.”

This is an example of the incredibly high standard that NYS regulations must allow for any merger to go through. Another example of rigging the system on failure is a fast merge clock, but no training for boards or admins on the merge process, so things are missed in the schedule. Missed items become reasons not to merge. Local Control: The NYS education system is designed for the local school board to control its own school. The merger project is not under the control of either district. Once the process begins, elected board members who come to their community and take the position that a merger is a good idea find that the merger regulations say that neither boards, neither the administrations nor the business leaders are smart enough to organize the merger. to plan. They are required to hire consultants, at taxpayers’ expense, to write this merger plan. Once the consultant has gathered their information, the board has no control over what the consultant puts in the merger document, although the SED can. As someone who has been in private industry, the group paying a consultant is expected to be able to read a draft report and request that more detail be added to certain parts of the report. It is almost impossible to make an addendum to the plan if new information comes to light. No politician wants to know their opinion, but the merger process does just that. Politicians don’t want to be part of this process and taxpayers, by nature, don’t want to vote for a plan that’s stuck down their throats, no matter how much they contribute.

¯ Schools as the foundation of community. Although it was never planned this way, small rural schools became essential to the existence of their small communities. They are among the biggest employers, pay some of the best wages, are hubs of social and community life, and are a huge source of civic pride. Local businesses depend on these local expenditures within the community. Even if the taxpayers do not want to pay excess taxes, it is far more important for these same taxpayers to have this school as an anchor for the community. This is especially true if Albany pays two-thirds of the tuition and the majority of all the financial inefficiencies that come from operating small school districts.

¯ Merger Incentive Fund in a Tax Cap System: Tax cap rules were instituted to ensure that education spending would increase in a controlled manner. If the districts merge, there are huge piles of money that Albany dumps on the new district. That’s great, but in a world of tax caps, districts can’t save it, so they have to spend it on things that boards of directors wouldn’t have spent taxpayers’ money on: donating to raise everyone, build new infrastructure, create new programs that can’t be paid for after the merger money runs out. Merger aid must be rolled out to help schools provide better educational opportunities for their students, all in the world of tax capping. The article supports shared services, which are great, but financial incentives for shared services must follow the same tax cap rules.

¯ Lack of assurances for parents: Parents want assurances about what their neighborhood will look like in the future. The merger document, created by the consultants, presents such a plan. The new amalgamated district will have a new BOE that hires new administration, and nothing in the amalgamation process prevents the new leadership from going in an entirely different direction. Parents want assurances where the school will be. They want to know how long their preschooler will be on the bus. The current merger process does not give any assurance and without it it is rejected. Please do not claim that a merger document has any moral authority, as this will not hold up in court.

¯ Incomplete merger plans: As above, if a merger plan indicates that something will be considered later, that is one reason taxpayers vote no. Westfield Brocton’s merger plan simply stated that transportation would be addressed later. Even if it is only 5% of the budget, it was enough to give reasons to vote no. Maybe SED should have a more comprehensive list of what merger consultants should put in the merger document.

¯ Unequal tax bases between districts: The district I served on the board for was one of the most tax-efficient districts. The board has worked hard for years to control costs. Then when the merger funding was done, most of the merger assistance went to the other district with the higher tax rate to bring it up to our level. Our residents asked why they were penalized for their financial prudence over the years and voted no. Whenever there are significant differences in tax rates, the merger is less likely to succeed.

¯ Strange Rules: Locally, Ripley sent her high school kids to Chautauqua Lake as part of a tuition deal. Their taxes have dropped and educational opportunities for their students have expanded dramatically. Neighborhoods cannot merge because they are not physically contiguous. A goofy rule like that prevents the merger, but Ripley’s taxpayers are probably still spending a million dollars a year just to have the Ripley District entity.

When I was on a school board, I often heard very clearly that the people of Chautauqua County wanted to lower their taxes. Their representatives spent considerable time and taxpayer dollars exploring numerous merger options, but all failed for the reasons listed above. An innovative regional high school concept was not legal and the bill could not pass the legislature despite our local lawmakers championing the cause. The taxpayers of Chautauqua would like to reduce their taxes while having excellent training for their students. As soon as New York State creates a process that allows for a reasonable chance of the merger succeeding, local taxpayers will vote for better education at a lower cost.

Steve Cockram is a resident of Westfield and a former board member of Westfield Academy and Central School.

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