Maryvale High School on April 16, 2018 (WBEN Photo)

Poloncarz Unveils School Consolidation Proposal

Merging Cheektowaga School Districts plus other school districts in Erie County

Mike Baggerman
April 16, 2018 - 3:50 pm
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BUFFALO, N.Y. (WBEN) - Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz formally unveiled his ambitious proposal from this year's State of the County Address, where he hopes to consolidate area schools and cut administrative costs as a result.

In the report, which can be read at the bottom of this story, Poloncarz first explained how of the $1.75 billion in property tax collected by Erie County, 52 percent of it goes to 32 individual school districts. Sixteen percent goes back to Erie County for its services, while 20 percent goes to cities, towns, and villages, and the remainder to special districts.

To combat the amount spent by taxpayers on schools, Poloncarz' request to consolidate the schools comes with the belief that doing so would save millions of dollars. By combining Cheektowaga Central School District and its neighboring school districts in Maryvale, Sloan, Cleveland Hill, plus the Depew School District, the county executive said that Erie County could save nearly $1.3 million. Additionally, a hypothetical merger with Eden Schools and North Collins Schools could save it approximately $177,725 when compared to Iroquois Schools. The county executive also cited the Alden and Akron school districts as another area that could merge, with the two schools becoming similar to the Sweet Home School District in size.

Consolidating schools was laid out in Article 37 of the New York State Education Law. It must be initiated by the school boards of all the participating districts. Once approved, residents of each districts must hold separate votes, with all the schools approving the merger. Dozens of attempts to merge schools in Erie County have failed since 2010.

While consolidating is difficult, Poloncarz noted that a merger could help provide students with more resources and services. He also said there would be major financial incentives to merge, thanks to New York State.

"New York State offers to the new districts that are created an entitlement of 40 percent increase in operating in state aid for five years," he said. "That is millions and millions of additional dollars that can be provided to local school districts to help defray any costs that may exist as a cost of a consolidation and provide additional aid and assistance directly to student care...The money sits in the New York State budget. It never gets touched. They keep rolling it over. It's $125 million they put in the budget."

Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz presents his school consolidation report (WBEN Photo/Mike Baggerman)
The state would then offer an additional ten years of enhanced aid. Poloncarz said the additional aid and the benefits of consolidation include expansion of programs, more AP classes, improved special education programs, internships, more sports programs, and other expanded educational offerings. He said schools could still operate under the same name, meaning students and staff can keep their school identity.

Poloncarz recommends that New York State should require school districts and special-use districts to participate in the 2018-2021 shared service panels. He also wants every school district with fewer than 2,000 students to review consolidation on a regular basis, especially if the districts continue to face declining enrollment. He also wants Article 37 of the state education law to eliminate some of the "built-in barriers" to consolidation. Poloncarz also wants school districts to make at least two years worth of enacted budgets readily available online.

REACTION

WBEN reached out to all the school district superintendents Poloncarz hypothesized for a merger. Of the nine named during the presentation, only two responded as of 5 p.m. Monday. 

Jon MacSwan, Superintendent at Cleveland Hill Schools, said he would absolutely be in favor of consolidation if there were taxpayer savings as the county executive described it. He said he was concerned with the "level of certainty" Poloncarz showed when it cames to taxpayer savings.

"It really, to me, demonstrated a lack of true understanding of the organization process," he said. "...He failed to look deeper into the re-organization process. It's not only the administrative costs, which I would tend to argue his numbers are not correct there, but the $1.3 million he articulated in the administrative savings cost for the five districts within Cheektowaga. He failed to note that you would have to equalize up contracts across your labor unions in those five districts. Simply applying that to the five districts to the five Cheektowaga's...there would be a $9.75 million increase in year one just by equalizing the contracts in the teacher's association."

MacSwan did say that there is the state aid that comes with consolidation, which helps equalize the teacher's contracts, and allows for infrastructure improvements like bus garages and other new buildings.

"Then what happens is the additional money goes into taxpayer savings, tax cuts, and filling of reserves," MacSwan said. "What happens is after year five, districts start to lose that re-organization incentive rate at ten percent a year. When districts hit year ten, they're hit with a larger school district, with equalized up contracts, larger capital investment and infrastructure, while still resting on the same tax base that was there prior to the re-organization."

He said at that point, taxpayers scream mismanagement because of increased tax rates.

A similar sentiment about the county executive's proposal was shared by Joseph D'Angelo, Superintendent at Maryvale Schools.

"Superintendents and school boards are not against saving money at all," D'Angelo said. "In fact, we're always looking for ways to share services and save money...I would have liked to have a conversation with (Poloncarz) before he put this out there because if the numbers were true and accurate, we'd be foolish not to pursue it. If it's going to save us millions of dollars, we would be foolish (not to). But there are other factors. It's not just a simple eliminate certain positions and you save X amount of dollars. There are a lot of moving parts to it."

Like MacSwan, D'Angelo pointed to the teachers contract with the school district.

"If you equalize the contracts so that a teacher at step 17 or step 15 is making the same at a consolidated district, that, along with health insurance, would cost you (around) $9 million," D'Angelo said. "In ten years, that would cost (around) $90 million. (It's) much more than what he said you would save. That's just one unit, teachers. You have CSA's, administrators, other support staff, that you would have to equalize their contracts."

Tax rates would also change in each of the respective districts.

Regarding the transparency in budgets, Maryvale was one of the districts criticized by Poloncarz for not having the enacted 2016-2017 budget online. D'Angelo explained how there may have been miscommunication between his office and the administration.

"We print out a binder of a district budget in it and we give two copies per building and a copy to central office for people to come in and examine," D'Angelo said. "We just don't have the funds to print out unlimited numbers of those because they're expensive. I think one of our secretaries told the county executive's office that they couldn't have one of the binders, not that they couldn't see the budget."

When asked if the school would just send an electronic version of the budget, D'Angelo said the county only asked for the binder, not an electronic version. Their website only features the 2017-2018 budget with numbers reflecting whatever increase or decrease compared to the prior fiscal year.

You can read the county's proposal and view his presentation slideshow by clicking the respective links.

AUDIO EXTRAS

 

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