The widespread conundrum of continuing to operate under the ever-increasing mandates of the New York State Education Department with minimal funding has many area school districts considering consolidation.
Consolidation among Chautauqua County districts has been witnessed in a number of forms, including school building closures, shared services, combined sports programs, budget and staffing cuts, tuitioning agreements and district mergers.
In addition to inadequate state funding, the overwhelming majority of county districts have seen a decrease in enrollment over the past two academic years. This combination has resulted in the closure of school buildings in order to centralize the students, while allowing for savings in operating and maintenance costs associated with the buildings.
The most recent examples of Chautauqua County school closures include Rogers Elementary School in the Jamestown Public Schools district, Cassadaga Elementary School in the Cassadaga Valley Central School district, and the vacancy of seventh- through 12th-grade students at Ripley Central School's middle/high school building through its tuition agreement with Chautauqua Lake Central School.
Karen Krause, former superintendent of Ripley, said the mostly vacant building will soon be undergoing construction in order to facilitate the relocation of several of Ripley's town offices. In addition to the opportunities it has presented to the town of Ripley, Krause said the tuition agreement with Chautauqua Lake has also proven itself to be beneficial to the school district.
"All of the feedback we've been getting from students and parents has been good," Krause said. "The kids are happy and excelling, and participation in our extracurricular activities (among elementary students) is very high. This was a change that we asked the community to advise us on, and their vote came through positive. It was natural for the kids and the community to be afraid at first, but all the information that we're getting here in the district is that it's working well. The community was just ready for change, and the kids will be the benefactors."
Administrators at Chautauqua Lake have also expressed optimism about the arrangement that welcomed students from a separate district into their classrooms.
"This partnership has resulted in a positive school experience for all of our students," said Benjamin Spitzer, Chautauqua Lake superintendent, indicating that class sizes and offerings have increased along with participation in athletic programs. "Although not a complete solution to the financial and programming challenges faced by our district and other districts like us, we believe this is a very important step to enhancing a district's capacity to meet student needs in a fiscally responsible manner."
"It has been an honor to open the doors of our secondary school to one of our area school districts," said Josh Liddell, secondary school principal. "At Chautauqua Lake our goal is to work together to develop an atmosphere that most closely resembles a strong family unit. We collaborate with one another to make sure that our students have the tools and resources they need to be successful both in the classroom and in life. In preparing for our recent winter concert, students from Ripley who were experienced at playing the handbells took the lead in teaching students from Chautauqua Lake how to play. And senior Trevor Houser, who had played bells at Ripley for seven years, conducted the new group."
Among the more controversial forms of consolidation has been the merging of athletic programs due to low participation. A recent merger between the Falconer Central School and Frewsburg Central School basketball programs has seen its share of criticism from community members in both districts due to a hasty agreement that was made in September.
Frewsburg reached out to Falconer when its projected participation numbers appeared to be insufficient to sustain the program into its next season, only to have more than enough students turn up for tryouts. Despite the fact that she could not have known the precise number of students who would ultimately participate, Superintendent Danielle O'Connor did offer an apology to her students and their parents for the merger, which saw some students being relegated to the practice squad due to a surplus of team members.
"That was my responsibility," O'Connor said during a Board of Education meeting last month. "The information that was brought forward to me, that we only had 10 students (signed up for basketball), made me feel extremely pressured that we were not going to have a program. And, in my haste to make sure that kids had an opportunity to have basketball, I did not do the homework that I should have done by myself. This is an adult mistake; it's not a child's mistake. And so, therefore, we have an obligation to try and include as many children as possible."
According to Stephen Penhollow, Falconer superintendent, Falconer had also projected below-average participation numbers and agreed to the merger based on what was, at the time, deemed to be the best decision for both districts.
"When considering a sports merger, we are looking at two key factors for our programs - safety and sustainability," Penhollow said in a previous interview. "The idea is to keep our kids playing in a place where they'll be safe, have good coaching and have a good fan base. And that's something we're very much excited about."
Chautauqua County is also home to a relatively untested method of consolidation - the sharing of a superintendent. This is the decision that was reached by the Panama Central School and Clymer Central School districts in August, when both boards approved the agreement to place Bert Lictus, Panama's superintendent, at the head of both districts.
"These are two schools with a lot of the same values," said Nancy Westerburg, Clymer board president. "And another thing is (Lictus) is from Clymer, we've known him all our lives and he's working in Panama. So it's kind of a perfect situation for us to put this together and make it work."
Lictus, who assumed his shared superintendency position on Oct. 26, said he has, to this point, been alternating his time at both districts in order to increase visibility.
"It's been so far, so good," Lictus said. "There aren't a lot of (shared superintendents) in the state, so it's kind of unique here. In a perfect world, it would be nice if it didn't have to happen this way; but circumstances are what they are. I'm enjoying it, and hopefully I can bring things from each district that will help improve the instruction of students in both districts."
The option to share superintendents was first made known to the districts through a presentation by David O'Rourke, Erie 2 Chautauqua-Cattaraugus BOCES superintendent. In his presentation, O'Rourke said other districts which have successfully negotiated a shared superintendency have reported a savings of $50,000-$60,000 on superintendent salary which, ideally, would be realized without any loss of services. According to a comprehensive administrative compensation report for the 2013-14 school year, which was obtained from the state Education Department website, the salaries paid to the Clymer and Panama superintendents would have been $112,200 and $116,812, respectively.
Recently an attempt at merging the Brocton Central School and Westfield Academy and Central School districts was voted down by Westfield's community members.
The idea of merging the districts began in 2012, when a study revealed that both districts were facing declining revenues and state aid, leading to a number of budget and programming cuts. Alan Holbrook, Westfield business manager, said that without a merger, Westfield would become fiscally insolvent in the 2018-19 school year. Brocton would have even less time until insolvency without the merger, according to the study.
However, these deficiencies and projections were not enough to convince the voting public in Westfield that a merger was the answer to their district's problems when it came down to the Oct. 9 vote. More than 1,200 votes were cast in Westfield during the statutory merger vote, with 718 people (58.6 percent) against the merger and 507 in favor. Brocton overwhelmingly supported the merger, with 643 people (89.7 percent) in favor of it and 74 people against.
John Hertlein, Brocton superintendent, said the failure of the proposed merger in Westfield will mean more work for Brocton as it attempts to overcome the obstacles set before it.
"It means that we will have economic challenges in the foreseeable future," he said after the results of the vote was announced. "We'll have to meet and we'll entertain questions from the (Brocton) board to figure out what is next and I will work very closely with them and we'll try to guide them in an intelligent, fiscal and curriculum-minded manner."
According to David Davison, Westfield superintendent, the outcome of the vote was telling of the Westfield community's desire to have the district remain an independent entity.
"New York state has designed the centralization process to hinge on the will of the communities," Davison said following the vote. "Tonight's defeat of the binding referendum reflects the will of the Westfield community. In the days ahead, we must work together to provide the best educational opportunities possible for our children."