We have to give it to Westfield residents.
Recently, a survey of Westfield residents about another proposed merger involving the Westfield Academy and Central School District showed there was no overwhelming support for another proposed merger.
Some of the issues brought up by Westfield residents aren't surprising. Dr. Janeil Rey, State University at Fredonia Educational Leadership Program co-coordinator, told Westfield Academy board members recently there were concerns in the community over the merger study, particularly a reference to Brocton's downtown being more vibrant than Westfield's downtown, that rubbed Westfield residents the wrong way. Westfield residents also said they didn't like the merged Brocton-Westfield high school being located in Brocton. Both are the type of parochial concerns that lurk in the background of nearly every school merger or consolidation decision that are disappointing but ultimately not surprising.
What is surprising is the sentiment among Westfield residents that one merger won't be enough in the long term.
"Whatever side they declared themselves on, if they were for it or against it, everyone said that they felt even if this merger had gone through, they weren't convinced that it would have solved the challenges the district is facing," Rey said. "(They agreed) that it would have almost - and this is my metaphor, not theirs - kicked the can down the road, and in a few years, be facing the same questions again, and possibly another merger. They thought, looking at reorganization, that the view had to be bigger than one district, looking at multiple districts either along the lake or involving Chautauqua Lake."
It is a statement the state Board of Regents and the state Education Department should heed, because Westfield residents clearly see what state officials do not. The benefits of school mergers have a shelf life, just as they did in the forced consolidations in the early to mid-20th century. The Mayville-Chautauqua central schools merger solidified the new Chautauqua Lake Central School district's finances and enrollment for a while, but eventually the same declining population and tax base issues that forced the Mayville-Chautauqua merger resurfaced.
Merging two struggling school districts in a sinking county is kind of like getting a sunburn, rubbing aloe on the sunburn and then running back outside the next day without applying any sunscreen. The aloe makes the initial burn feel better for a little bit, but without sunscreen, you're just going to get burned again.
We all have a pretty good idea what education in Chautauqua County needs to look like - fewer schools educating fewer students as the county's population continues to shrink. Some towns and villages that have school buildings won't at some point in the future. They shouldn't have school buildings now. For all their wisdom, the Westfield survey confirms the doubts many have that parochial interests will ever allow area residents to create an education infrastructure that makes sense for taxpayers and students.
It is time to stop banging our heads against the wall. Forced consolidation worked once. It will work again. Just as we are unconvinced local voters can overcome parochial interests in two communities to merge a school, we're not sure state officials have the political will to make forced school mergers or consolidations happen again.