Thinking of merger? Scaled-down study can save $, effort

On Board Online • February 11, 2013

By William D. Silky

A school district merger study, no matter how it is approached, is surely something that will get any school community engaged.  Having conducted 23 school district merger studies in New York since 1985, I know this to be true. While some degree of alarm among residents about possible changes is unavoidable, school boards often can minimize concerns – and expenses – by choosing to conduct a “preliminary” merger study in which a consultant examines issues of feasibility and desirability and makes a report to the respective school boards.

Full-blown merger studies, in contrast, must involve an advisory committee and a number of public meetings. This approach can be time-consuming and emotionally draining for all concerned. Sometimes it’s a waste because the numbers speak for themselves. In fact, over the past two years several colleagues and I have conducted two school district merger studies that were doomed from the start.  In both cases, the spread of tax rates between the study districts was so great that, despite the additional incentive state aid merged districts receive, the tax rate in one district would go down while the other district’s rate would go up.

Who would vote in favor of a merger if it meant they would have to dissolve their current school district and at the same time have their taxes increase?  While there can be merger benefits such as enhanced educational opportunities for students, improved school facilities, and more efficient staffing, most resident voters will not approve merger referenda if their tax rate increases. 

Four school districts in Seneca County (Seneca Falls, Waterloo, South Seneca and Romulus) took a different approach by getting a pre-merger consultation before embarking on full-blown merger studies.  Knowing that districts considering mergers have to be contiguous, there were eight possible combinations of these four districts. The pre-merger investigation posed the primary question: “Which combinations, if any, of the four districts might make it feasible and desirable to engage in a full and complete merger study?”

Although not nearly as in-depth or time intensive as a full-blown merger study (nor nearly as costly – $12,000 vs. $45,000), this investigation took a look at the same factors that the State Education Department requires be considered in full-blown merger studies. For each district combination, we looked at:

  • Enrollments. Was the number of students to be educated increasing, decreasing or staying the same?
  • Finances. What would be the value of merger incentive operating aid?
  • High school programs. Based on an inventory of high school curricular and extracurricular offerings, what programs would each district offer the other?
  • Administrative staffing. Are staff reductions possible?
  • Teacher salary scales. What is the potential cost of “leveling up” salaries to make salary schedules identical?
  • School facilities. Roughly how much space is available in various district facilities, and how do building aid ratios compare?
  • Transportation. What do transportation supervisors expect in terms of travel times?
  • Community compatibility. What do district personnel say about their respective communities?

In Seneca County, basic data and informal assessments obtained in the preliminary study led to the conclusion that only three of the eight possible combinations of the districts were worth exploring further.  In fact, Romulus and South Seneca as well as Seneca Falls and Waterloo have taken the next step and engaged in the full-study process.  While the outcome of these two potential mergers is unknown as of this time, in our opinion these studies were at least worthy of conducting. 

As merger study consultants, my colleagues and I are delighted to be compensated for our time and expertise.  However, as New York State taxpayers, we resent wasting tax dollars on studies that are heading down a dead-end path.  Therefore, we strongly encourage any school board that is considering a possible merger study to do some preliminary work.  In fact, we think it would be wise state policy to require any school district that may wish to pursue a merger study to first conduct a similar pre-merger investigation.  Especially today, tax dollars are at a premium. Therefore we must be very judicious in the ways we employ them.

   William D. Silky, Ed.D., is director of the educational leadership program at Le Moyne College and a senior partner in Castallo & Silky-Education Consultants in Syracuse.. He worked in public schools for 18 years as both a teacher and administrator.

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