School board eyeing neighboring districts for reorganization, tuitioning

OBSERVER File Photo The Gowanda Central School board members discussed merging and tuition at their recent meeting. GOWANDA CENTRAL SCHOOL

GOWANDA — The topics of merging and tuitioning are on the minds of Gowanda Central School board members, who enjoyed a change of scenery at their recent school board meeting, which was held at the Seneca Nation of Indians’ Early Childhood Learning Center in Irving.

Board member Mark Nephew initiated the discussion during the round table portion of the meeting. In response to board member Janet Vogtli’s push for meeting with elected officials at the upcoming BOCES-led legislative breakfast, Nephew said, “I think in some ways, we need to decide what we actually want as a board. What do we want to express to our legislators?”

He went on to discuss the smaller graduating classes of neighboring schools, including Forestville, North Collins and Pine Valley, all of which he said have graduating classes less than half the size of Gowanda’s.

“It’s time to start reaching out and talk about tuition agreements, maybe merging,” Nephew said. “Merging school districts brings in quite a bit of money…You get additional state aid for a merged school district for 10 years.”

Board president Cindy Sutherland said she went to a meeting last year with another district “that was having difficulty.” She said, in addition to the unnamed district, there were representatives from other districts present. “Quite frankly, a district needs to have something appealing to the tax payers to make them want to merge with another district,” Sutherland stated.

Nephew responded with the financial benefits and class offerings that Gowanda could offer and again pointed out that Gowanda is “twice the size” of Forestville, North Collins and Pine Valley.

Data from the state education department (last updated June 30, 2017) support this claim. According to the state’s database, the K-12 populations of the three districts are as follows: Forestville had 469 students, North Collins had 585 students and Pine Valley had 532 students. By comparison, Gowanda Central School’s K-12 population was 1,189. The school had 89 seniors participate in the commencement ceremony last June.

Sutherland suggested that the board consider additional factors, such as demographics. “What district might have a population with similar needs? Similar students we could combine with that would benefit both districts?”

Nephew said the school that is most similar is Silver Creek Central School, but he pointed to a major obstacle. “You’d have to build a new school because neither could handle the combined population. We could absorb all or part of Forestville, North Collins or Pine Valley without a huge capital project,” he said.

Indeed, the state education department reports that in 2017, Silver Creek had a K-12 population of 1,035 students. Sixty-four students received their high school diplomas at graduation in 2018.

Sutherland expressed concern that expanding Gowanda’s student population by merging would ultimately dilute its resources. Speaking of the decade of increased state aid, she asked, “When you’re done with the 10 years, what do you have left?”

“You have a larger student population,” Nephew replied.

Board member Lynn Guzzetta expressed interest in the idea and mentioned a topic Gowanda has recently been exploring. “If we merge districts, a later start time is beneficial for everyone,” she said.

Nephew suggested a meeting with Erie-2-Chautauqua-Cattaraugus BOCES district superintendent David O’Rourke, who is also the New York State Education Department Commissioner’s representative in the region. Board member Dan York suggested bringing in an administrator from another district who could “bring up some things we’re not aware of.”

Board members agreed to explore the topic further at future meetings. The next meeting of the school board is Wednesday, Feb. 6 at 7 p.m. in the Gowanda Middle School library.