Is merger the answer for your district?

7 signs that school consolidation might work

On Board Online • Opinion • March 2, 2009

By William D. Silky

As school boards across New York State plan their 2009-10 school budgets, the possibility of merging with a neighboring district may arise. But emotions tend to run high when consolidation is on the table. How can school boards engage in such discussions in a productive and informed manner?

School consolidation is prominent in the history of our state. In the early part of the 20th century there were more than 10,000 school districts in New York State; today there are approximately 700. Calls for further consolidation continue, including the recently issued report of the New York State Commission on Property Tax Relief, more commonly known as the Suozzi Report. The December 2008 report recommended that the Legislature “require consolidation of school districts that have fewer than 1,000 pupils” and that the commissioner of education be granted the “discretionary authority to order consolidation of school districts with fewer than 2,000 students.”

A different approach was recommended in a 1992 study. County-wide, multi-county and high school districts were recommended in the Frey Report, which then-Commissioner of Education Thomas Sobol presented to the Board of Regents on behalf of the Statewide Advisory Committee on School District Organization.

Having served on the Frey Report committee and having conducted 19 school merger studies over the past 20 years, school consolidations have been an interest of mine for many years. I believe there is little political will to change existing policy because local communities tend to be fiercely protective of their local school systems. Although a statutory requirement is unlikely, some school districts should explore the option of consolidation to serve their communities more efficiently.

   School officials considering consolidation should bear in mind that the most common form of combining districts in New York has been annexation. Where school district consolidation has occurred, it has been most successful when one district simply takes in another as opposed to “centralization,” the combining of two or more school districts into one after each has been dissolved.

   Here are seven characteristics that have accompanied successful school mergers, in my experience:

  1. A superintendent in one of the districts will be exiting shortly due to retirement or some other reason.
  2. There already is an intermingling of residents from the districts involved. For example, residents in one school district shop in the neighboring district or children from both communities participate on the same youth athletic teams.
  3. The districts studying consolidation do not have a history of athletic rivalry. People are passionate about sports, and a proposal to combine athletic rivals usually evokes strong emotional responses.
  4. The districts have seriously explored and implemented a number of ways of sharing services with other area districts and local municipalities, and the BOCES has exhausted additional ways of sharing.
  5. There is not a wide discrepancy between the taxation levels in the districts. It is important that both districts experience similar tax stabilization from the use of the incentive aid.
  6. Employee salary scales and benefits are not radically different. This is important because salaries of the lower-paying district are almost always leveled-up to those of the higher-paying district.
  7. The districts have solicited independent assistance with the study process. It is critical that neither district be perceived as manipulating the outcome of the study process. An independent, neutral party should oversee the gathering and sharing of facts pertinent to the decision.

After consolidation, it is important that each community have its own elementary school, at least in the short term. In many cases, one of the districts in a study has buildings in very poor condition; hence, agreement will have to be reached to improve poor facilities so that it can properly serve children.

Much has been learned over the past century about the consolidation of school districts in New York State. It is important that local boards of education use this knowledge as they confront one of the most challenging financial times our state has ever faced. How can we provide our children with the best education possible in such daunting financial times? To a large degree, such questions can only be answered by local boards of education. 

William D. Silky is a professor of educational administration at the State University of New York at Oswego and has been a consultant to more than 100 school districts in New York State on a variety of school management issues.

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