School Merger Roadblocks and Remedies

Early in his state of the state Gov. Cuomo stated that NYS has too many governmental entities. That conclusion is drawn from the fact that NYS has “the worst business tax climate in the nation, period” with taxes “66% higher than the national average.” One of the causes is the proliferation of special tax districts; another is the existence of too many small local jurisdictions. While more was done to encourage consolidation by the Spitzer and Paterson administrations than ever before, progress continues at a snail’s pace. Why?

The reason is that the merger process has too many steps and as a result takes too long.

To consolidate school districts for example takes at least 18 months. It requires the formation of merger study committees to examine each aspect of the proposed system. These merger committees must produce a merger proposal, which has to be approved by the state. Then both school boards still have the power to prevent the proposal from being sent to the voters. In some cases, the merger can be subject to a non-binding referendum and then a binding referendum. And, everything has to be done in time to elect a new school board in April and to hold a public vote on the new budget in May or the entire process is delayed by a full year.

This arrangement – while nicely protective of all the constituencies involved – has too many opportunities for monkey wrenches to be thrown into the works. Timing becomes critical and that’s not how decisions should be made. How about this as a simplified path:

  • If 2/3 of a school board is in favor of a merger, the merger committee is formed without the right of the school board to prevent their proposal from being submitted to the voters in a binding referendum once the State Education Dept has approved it.
  • If only a majority, but not 2/3 are in favor, the school board must submit the concept to the voters within 60 days. If the voters approve, the merger committee is formed and the proposal, once approved by State Ed., must go to the public in a binding referendum.
  • Merger committees must be given deadlines for reporting and School Boards should be given the authority to use proposal elements previously approved by SED where local committees have been unable to meet the deadline.

While local circumstances need to be taken into account, a sufficient number of school district mergers have taken place so that local committees should not be expected to re-invent the wheel. SED should give them templates, which allow for the insertion of local data and contingencies. Committees must know that their work will not be used unless it is submitted on time.

Finally, Gov. Cuomo’s idea of offering incentives for districts to merge should be instituted by the Legislature, but so should my oft-stated recommendation that there be sanctions for districts that meet defined criteria but fail to entertain the possibility of merger within a set time period. Thus, districts whose overhead costs per pupil are excessive as well as those which are unable to afford to offer standard programs to students might be required to consider merging with another district or face reduced state aid.

Why are school mergers beneficial? Listen to Wells Interim Superintendent John Zeis: “It is very difficult to run a small high school. If you can have efficiencies created, it makes a small school viable.”

Or listen to Mayfield Superintendent Paul Williamson: “Improving our programs [on our own] becomes challenging.”

Wells is considering merging with Lake Pleasant, which only serves students thru 9th grade. Instead of being able to merge this year, the soonest that merger can occur is July 2012.

Despite Williamson’s assertion that Mayfield and Northville communities “have similar thoughts about what’s good for our kids,” the soonest that merger can take place is July 2012.

(Quotes from Gloversville/Johnstown Leader Herald, Jan. 3, 2011)

Incentives, sanctions and a more compact process are the elements needed to get the kind of results NYS needs to fulfill Gov. Cuomo’s desire to break the downward cycle that is damaging NYS.


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