The Westfield and Brocton boards of education came to neutral ground Wednesday night at the LoGuidice Center in Fredonia to take the first step toward a merger of the two districts. However, both boards have to meet and pass a resolution to continue down that path.
Dr. Robert Olczak, interim superintendent for Erie 2 Chautauqua Cattaraugus BOCES, opened the meeting. Each school district board was called to order. Next, the districts shared information.
Peggy Sauer, interim superintendent of the Westfield district, spoke first.
OBSERVER Photo by Diane R. Chodan
The big picture at Wednesday’s joint meeting of the Westfield and Brocton boards of education. To the left is Westfield Board, in the center are personnel from BOCES, and on the right is the Brocton Board.
"We care deeply about both of our school districts and we care deeply about our students. ... Westfield is no longer sustainable as a separate district," she said.
Alan Holbrook, the WACS business manager, painted the picture for Westfield: an increasing budget gap, a declining fund balance that will lead to fiscal insolvency, a decline in enrollment and a decline in staff.
Specifically in 2012-2013 (before application of reserves or fund balance), the budget gap was $1.2 million; by 2016-17, the cumulative budget gap would be $10.5. By 2014-15, all reserves would be exhausted. Enrollment has declined from 1,100 students in 1995-96 to 760 currently. The projection for 2017-18 is 629 students. The teaching staff declined from 102 in 1995-96 to a current 79 and is projected to be 55 in 2017.
Sauer explained some of the cuts to programs that Westfield has already endured. She also cited some of the recommendations developed by the Westfield Academy and Central School Ad Hoc Strategic Planning Committee (SPC) that was facilitated by Rich Koerner. These included budget cutting, acting now to approach neighboring districts about consolidation, increasing shared services, and advocating for a regional high school.
Most importantly, the message of the SPC was don't sit back and wait; act now.
Brocton Superintendent John Hertlein spoke next. Before the presentation of Brocton's figures, he said the Brocton School district went through what Westfield is going through two years ago. ... I just want to take the time publicly to thank Westfield for all they did to help us get through those two years. Westfield has been a very good neighbor, absolutely. Not only in sharing some of our sports ... The administration worked hand-in-hand together."
Betty Deland, the business manager from Brocton, projected that reserves at Brocton will last until 2015-16.
"Then we are going to be in the same boat as other districts," she said.
Olczak then presented information about the process of merger. He said, "Close cooperation among the district superintendents, the boards of education and the State Education Department staff is essential to ensure that each step is carried out and in the proper sequence."
He explained there are financial incentives to merge that are the greatest for five years and then decrease over the next five years.
Both districts have knowledge of the process and both districts have defeated mergers in the past. The boards discussed why this one might work.
Hertlein pointed out that the districts are similar in geographic size and enrollment. He said, "It's more than a school merger, it's a fit and match. The communities have to be similar in thoughts and feeling. That's terribly important."
Sauer said Westfield has now more fully experienced the problems that cuts cause.
Olczak took questions from the boards and also from the audience of about 25 people, which included teachers, administrative staff, and representatives of Westfield's SPC.
Koerner, the facilitator of the SPC group said, "It's time for leaders to lead. It's time to move forward in a positive manner."
Olczak complimented both boards for their willingness to meet and offered the support of the state education department and the district office.
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