Times have changed in New York state and especially in Chautauqua County over the past several years. With it, schools must change as well.
In the face of declining enrollment and reduced state aid, schools have found ways to share services, investigate mergers and tuition students to other districts in order to maintain opportunities and keep cost down.
"For sure things have changed," said John Hertlein, Brocton Central School superintendent. "You can see right now Ripley is tuitioning their kids to Chautauqua Lake, Chautauqua Lake is going to play football with Bemus Point, Forestville is sharing their football and sports program with Silver Creek. We are looking at a merger (with Westfield Academy and Central School.) Dunkirk and Fredonia is combining their pre-k program. It is survival at this point and districts have to come up with some shared or cooperative agreements in order to survive and to continue with the programs they have."
Virtually all schools are sharing services in one way or another in this time of tough budgets. The most commonly shared services range from sports to transportation to professional training and special education.
"We currently share with a number of different districts services related to special education, some academic offerings, certainly some athletics and we have had conversations in the past and have shared some transportation depending on where we may have kids attending out-of-district programs," said Charles Leichner, Forestville Central School superintendent. "We are actively pursuing the opportunity to share services with neighboring districts and we are really encouraged by that opportunity because it enhances the program for both schools."
Daniel Ljiljanich, Silver Creek Central School superintendent, said districts share services for two reasons.
"It's done two things for all of the school's involved, it's saved some money and it's also provided some opportunities that perhaps some students wouldn't have had had we not shared the services. That's a really important point, in some of the cases where we are sharing services there may not be a huge financial savings but if we didn't share the service, those students wouldn't be provided the same opportunity that they are because we do share the service," he explained.
Dunkirk and Fredonia school districts are taking shared services a step further by applying for a local efficiency grant which would allow the districts to look at all opportunities to share programs and services.
"We are looking at combining some sports teams, down the road we are looking to see if we can get into some combined bidding for things like transportation. Pretty much anything we can do to save some dollars we are going to try," Gary Cerne, Dunkirk City Schools superintendent.
"If we get this efficiency grant it would allow us to get some experts to look at our two operations and advise us what would be most cost effective," added Paul DiFonzo, Fredonia Central School superintendent.
Right now the two districts have only agreed to share a universal pre-kindergarten program, but have said everything is on the table.
"I think we are into a situation where change is needed and we have to look to make changes so we can save on our expenses anywhere we can. I definitely think it's a movement we are going to see more of," Cerne explained.
Although there has been a rise in individual districts seeking out shared services with other districts, it was noted that shared services offered by BOCES are also on the rise.
"We still share many services through BOCES. BOCES offers all of our school districts in Erie-2 different kinds of academic programs and services at a cost and then we receive aid back on those things ... It's cost effective to do a lot of work with BOCES," DiFonzo said.
In addition to pre-k, Dunkirk shares wrestling and girls' swimming with Silver Creek and last year shared drivers' education and summer school as well. Silver Creek also shares football, track and modified soccer with Forestville. In addition to Fredonia sharing track with Westfield, the district also shares fuel services with the village, works cooperatively with the village and town of Pomfret to provide a school resource officer and is part of a health insurance consortium and energy consortium.
BOCES aids all districts who choose to participate in the areas of professional development, special education, alternative and vocational education as well as cooperative bidding and central business office services.
Merger votes are nothing new to the area but the pressure on districts to find cost saving solutions for taxpayers and program opportunities for students was the driving force behind the talks between Westfield and Brocton school districts.
"There's two factors, our student population in both districts are declining every year and so is our revenue. So a combination of a smaller student population and a declining economic environment, we said it may be a good idea to combine our schools so then the population would go up and then we could share our financial resources as well. Plus with a merger we get incentive aid for that for the first 14 years," Hertlein explained.
Nearly six months ago both districts approved the Western New York Educational Service Council with the assistance of a 24-member Joint District Advisory Committee to do a feasibility study.
"A merger has to do two things: it has to show we can increase programs for students and also do it more economically than we can by ourselves," Hertlein said.
The district recently received the report stating it is feasible to proceed to a straw vote of school district residents before a referendum vote is called.
"The financial position that most districts are in is leading all of us to look at more economical ways to deliver education to our kids ... I think as everyone looks to be more economically efficient we will be looking at sharing more services," said David Davison, Westfield Academy and Central School superintendent.
Brocton and Westfield currently share football, a ski club, soccer and next year will share volleyball. The districts also share a social worker with Ripley.
Although the issue of declining enrollment is not unique, Ripley Central School may have been hit the hardest in Chautauqua County.
Superintendent Karen Krause explained declining enrollment in addition to several failed merger votes in the past led the district to search for another option.
"Twenty years of looking for ways to either merge and expand the way we share and try to reduce costs and bring more programs to the kids because as our numbers have declined consequently so have our programs. Absent a successful vote to consolidate and absent the passage of a regional high school bill, tuitioning is the only other thing allowed under law currently which would allow districts to reorganize and do business differently," she said.
In the past 20 years Ripley's student enrollment has declined by 224 students, leaving the district with just over 300 students in kindergarten through 12th grade. During that time four votes to merge, annex or centralize failed in one of the two communities.
After the regional high school bill was not passed by the state legislature, Ripley faced the challenge of how to best provide for its students. The vote in February for the school board to go forward with tuitioning narrowly passed 282 to 262.
Chautauqua Lake Board of Education has also approved the contract to tuition Ripley students to its school on March 27. The contract will send students in seventh through 12th grade to Chautauqua Lake.
"I believe schools will have to change based upon the changes that are going on outside of the school systems. You can't not change if everything else around you is changing," Krause added.
The movement of sharing services appears to be on the rise with more and more districts looking to their neighbors to help maintain programs and save money.
"The problem is almost every school district in Western New York but especially in our area in (E2CCB) school districts are losing student population," DiFonzo explained. "Student populations are decreasing and then you lose school aid because a lot of your aid is based on student population and obviously the state is in fiscal crisis so aid to schools in general has been reduced over the last three or four years so in order to offer the students all of the programs they need so they can compete when they leave high school, school really need to work together and work with their local communities - the village, the town - for whatever services they can combine."
Leichner agreed, saying sharing services is what schools will have to do in order to do the same things with less.
"I really think the way schools do business will look quite different in five years than it does today and I think a big part of that change is going to be sharing services," he said. "I think that it's a little early to predict what that may look like exactly but I don't think that there is any area of school as we know it that is off the table in terms of this conversation. I think that it's the way to go, I am a big proponent of sharing services as opposed to eliminating services or limiting opportunities for kids. I think that sharing services is the wave of the future for small rural schools."
Leichner said sharing services has not only helped maintain programs but has expanded opportunities at Forestville schools.
"I feel like it's something we have to embrace. I think people may get a little nervous when they think of districts sharing but I think we have to change the way we look at school and recognize if we work together with neighboring districts we are going to be able to do more than if we try to do everything on our own. I don't think there is any problem with that, there isn't any weakness in it, I think it's wise for us to consider, 'how can we help each other? And what does one district have to offer that another doesn't? And vice versa,'" he explained.
Going forward one of the obstacles to districts sharing is a common calendar and bell schedule. Ljiljanich said superintendents in E2CCB are talking about a common schedule and how they can increase shared service in the future.
"It is certainly something that we are talking about now. But there are so many little caveats that go into our schedules, many of which are tied to busing. That's one of the things holding us back in being able to adjust our schedules is transportation of our students to school ... I think it's a sign of progress that as superintendents we are talking about the possibility of a common schedule," he said.