Thursday was a day to focus. Consultants from Western New York Educational Service Council presented information and asked questions of a number of people in connection with the feasibility study for centralizing the Brocton and Westfield school districts. Participants met based on what group represented them - senior citizens, students, parents and boosters, for example.
The essential question for the consultants to answer in their study is "Will creating a new school district via the merger process in New York state provide enhanced or maintained educational opportunities and at the same time increase long term efficiencies and lower costs for the taxpayers of both Brocton Central School District and Westfield Academy and Central School?" In other words, will a merger help the schools provide the students with a better selection of classes and extra-curricular activities (or at least prevent more cuts) while lowering operating costs and taxes?
The consultants had already conducted a number of focus groups in Westfield. The process is the same for all groups with the exception of students who are asked questions geared to their status and interests.
OBSERVER Photo by Diane R. Chodan
Dick Lancaster and Linda Haley participate in a focus group for Westfield senior citizens. The group met at the YWCA in Westfield. The seniors were asked eight questions about their perceptions of the Westfield schools. Thomas Schmidt (standing) is recording the comments made. Comments will be incorporated into the feasibility study.
Consultants start with basic information about the process of the study, the role of focus groups and some information about the school districts, including financial data and population projections. That data is available on the website of each school.
Next, participants are asked to comment on eight different questions. The comments are recorded and become part of the study.
Consultant Marilyn Kurzawa said "This is a qualitative rather than quantitative process." In other words, she was asking questions that invited comments rather than recording numbers of "yes or no" votes.
In Westfield, consultant Thomas Schmidt met with the Westfield Senior Citizen Group at the YWCA. The seniors were having their regular meeting, and the meeting was well-attended. About 30 people were present.
The seniors were proud of the Westfield school, pointing to an excellent music program, excellent teachers, a good job with busing, and the after school activities that are open to members of the community. Concerns with the district included supervisors who received "mega bucks" carrying sports programs too far, parents who need to step up and get involved in the children's education, the loss of staff, and the loss of programs.
A former music teacher said there were once three music teachers who taught more children than five did and four now do. She thought the program was very good and is still good.
The seniors admitted that they don't know as much about the program needs of students now. One man said, "When I had kids at school I was more informed than now."
When asked about the positives of creating a new school district, one man said, "It depends on how it's done." His point was that he would like to see it provide cost savings, but if there were costs involved, such as increased busing, there might not be as much savings as anticipated.
Dick Lancaster said, "The combined athletic programs has made a difference. We are slowly integrating, and the kids are fine with it."
Schmidt pointed out the state offers extra aid for a merged district. The first five years the amount is 40 percent of the General Formula Aid calculation. The aid then decreases by 4 percent each year for the next nine years, so that at year 14 there is no more aid.
One man asked a question, "Where does that come from?" He then answered, "Out of our pockets." While he understood that the money wasn't from property taxes, he noted people are subject to state taxes that pay for the incentives.
At Brocton, the focus group for boosters attracted about 10 participants followed by a focus group for Brocton parents which attracted about 25 participants. Some of those who attended the booster meeting stayed for the parent group.
Brocton parents and boosters had a number of points of pride in their school. Like the Westfield seniors, they saw the building as a focal point for the community, "a gathering point." One person pointed to the beauty of the architecture of the building. Other participants noted athletic events and concerts are community social events, a good relationship between the teachers and the board of education exists, the school newspaper is award-winning, and that high school students can take classes at Jamestown Community College. Parents appreciated the small school atmosphere that allows the teachers to know the students well and the kindness of the administrators.
Concerns were the shrinking programs, budget problems, cutting of staff allowing less electives, loss of extracurricular activities, and class sizes.
There was debate over whether the district provided good value for taxes and whether children were well-prepared for college or the workforce. Some saw deficiencies but also felt that the district does the best it can with limited resources.
When asked about whether Brocton residents are well-informed about the district's financial status, Bill Westin, who attended the booster group said, "The majority have a sense of the problem." He added that some people have a better knowledge of the situation than others.
The advantages of merger cited by the groups included: stability of programs and possible expansion of programs, tax relief, and increased state aid. Negatives included: loss of identity, increased cost for busing, a potential vacant building, and a potential negative impact on athletics.
A community focus group meeting will be held in each district so that members of the public who have not attended a group already can learn about the merger study and respond to questions posed. The meetings will be held at 7 p.m. on Wednesday at the Brocton School Auditorium and 7 p.m. on Nov. 19 at the Westfield School Auditorium. Residents are asked to attend the meeting in their own school district.
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