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School merger proposal gets mixed reviews

Mike Desmond
Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz says savings can be had by merging school districts.

Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz took his study recommending some school district mergers to save on management costs to North Collins Monday night, suggesting merging Eden and North Collins.

Credit Mike Desmond / WBFO News

The 80-page report says most districts are shrinking and there could be considerable savings in management costs with fewer top-level managers.

For example, the study says Eden enrollment is down 24 percent from 2006 to 2017, while North Collins is down nearly 14 percent to 585 at the end of last year. He says North Collins has the highest per-pupil spending, with Eden a lot lower. The study says the two districts have among the highest administrative costs per student and administrative costs are where the study focuses on the cost advantage of mergers.

Poloncarz says the clearly interested packed crowd recognized there are problems.

"They understand that with the declining student enrollment population, with declining population in most of the municipalities, that the issue is going to have to be addressed sooner or later," he says. "It's better to address it sooner so you can properly deal with these issues rather than wait until it's so far down the line that you can't fix them. So I think that's important that the people here understand these are legitimate issues that need to be discussed."

Poloncarz told the crowd financially strapped districts can't offer students some crucial programs. He cited Cheektowaga, which has eight school districts covering parts of the town, including five completely located in the town and offering 21 advance placement courses. He compared Cheektowaga to Williamsville, which has about the same total number of students, covers part of the town and offers 60 AP courses.

Credit Mike Desmond / WBFO News

Albany offers some assistance to merging districts, although it eventually goes away and a vocal merger opponent says it isn't enough. In vocal opposition was the executive director of the Erie County Association of School Boards, Bruce Fraser, who says the county executive's numbers are suspicious.

"You identified $175,000, you still have another $8.6 million to identify. That does not take place," Fisher says. "Anybody who sat on a board one year can tell you that does not take place without closing school, laying off staff and changing in great degree the character of the school between the two communities."

Under state law, if two districts decide to merge, there is a long process eventually involving voters in the districts having to individually approve a merger.

Gowanda School Board candidate Janet Vogtli says her district also needs to look at a merger, perhaps with Pine Valley.

"We are a small school district and we need help," Vogtli says, "and we need to look like maybe taking some of North Collins and Pine Valley and we all need to be working together. We can't even have a sports team without going with Pine Valley. We need this and I'm glad that somebody is finally leading the way. Our biggest stumbling block is going to be the state. They don't want to help us. We go to them and the keep throwing more money."

Mike Desmond is one of Western New York’s most experienced reporters, having spent nearly a half-century covering the region for newspapers, television stations and public radio. He has been with WBFO and its predecessor, WNED-AM, since 1988. As a reporter for WBFO, he has covered literally thousands of stories involving education, science, business, the environment and many other issues. Mike has been a long-time theater reviewer for a variety of publications and was formerly a part-time reporter for The New York Times.
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