Is it time for Chenango schools to merge?

I've heard it said countless times that schools can't expect to operate the same way ten years from now.

Yet that’s not quite the same sentiment reflected by last week's school budget vote, when all eight districts in the county passed a 2013-2014 budget and the subsequent tax increase tied to them. Most districts hovered that magical two percent increase that voters tend to approve. Not to be misunderstood, I think it's great so much support is behind these districts but nevertheless, I question what we are paying for, and if each budget passed is simply prolonging an inevitable consolidation of some Chenango County schools.

Even with the recent economic uptick, the New York State Education Department insists that population and cost trends in schools statewide indicate a need for strategies that support district consolidation and regionalization of services. Local districts are facing tough times with little evidence to show otherwise. Rising costs of uncontrollable expenses – pension, healthcare, transportation and special education services – continue to plague schools without any sign of relief in sight. Adding salt to an open wound, the statewide tax cap is tying the hands of school officials from dealing with these issues without hurtful cuts to programs or faculty. Moreover, enrollment has dropped significantly in each district in Chenango County (by more than 18 percent at Unadilla Valley since 2007, and nearly 17 percent in Oxford in the same time).

I'm not specialized in school leadership, but I know falling enrollments combined with raising costs spells trouble for most local districts. Given, things are more optimistic now than only a few short years ago, but when schools must draw from reserve accounts just to keep the lights on, then there are unavoidable red flags that must not be ignored. A school district can draw money from reserve accounts for only so long before that well dries.

So the question then becomes, is another approved budget akin to potentially wasteful spending? While I agree that all school programs are vital to the academic and developmental achievement of students in every district, I can’t help but wonder if a tax levy increase is the best alternative for school districts where consolidation might be the best suitable option for financial distress. Arguably, some schools may just be buying more time in hopes of avoiding devastating layoffs like those recently seen in Broome County. Perhaps it is time for districts to face the painful scenario of possible consolidation, for communities to overcome obstacles like the fear of losing their identity, the assumption that larger enrollment will rob students of individualized attention, and the reluctance to give up “what is” for “what might be.” These obstacles stand in the way of progress and can latently set small districts up for failure.

Similar circumstances are being addressed in neighboring Madison County, where talks of a possible merger between Hamilton and Morrisville-Eaton central schools have been underway for almost two years. While any agreement to merge might still be far from coming to fruition, each district does realize the trouble they’re in and face the same challenges identical to those seen in our hometown. While both schools are dealing with the same aforementioned obstacles that might prevent consolidation, the option is on the table and is being taken seriously. It represents just one case in an increasing number of merger study requests received by the State Education Department.

Certainly the decision of local districts to rethink its structure, whether it is the reorganization of administration or the merge of brick and mortar schools, is – in my opinion – one to be objectively thought through.

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