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Merging schools offers solution to aid crisis

Commentary

Since I began writing this column over five years ago, I’ve written time and time again that Chautauqua County and its long-suffering taxpayers can no longer support its many small school districts that place a great strain on taxpayers while still depending on large infusions of state aid.

We are in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic that has led to unexpected increases in spending at all levels. Recently state Gov. Andrew Cuomo has been signaling that there could be a 20% cut in state aid to schools because of the emergency.

Now school districts are faced with a dire financial situation for which there are no easy solutions. There is some chance that an additional federal aid package, intended for state and local COVID-19 related budget problems could be brought up for a vote. It has support from Congressional Democrats and Democratic governors, but Republicans are suspicious of Democratic intentions and are fearful that the money may go mainly to support underfunded state pension funds. This would mean that states like Florida and Texas, which practice fiscal responsibility, would end up financing the budget deficits of states like New York, Illinois, and California. Therefore, in the short-term, New York school districts may be facing severely reduced state aid and, at best, aid comparable to what they received in the last state budget.

In the long term, the best solution — as advanced on numerous occasions by OBSERVER Publisher John D’Agostino — is the merging of our small districts into several large districts. Supporters of the current state of affairs advance several reasons for retaining our small districts, few of which stand up under close examination.

I know that many supporters of the current situation have lived in the region much of their lives and retain a sentimental loyalty to the school they once attended and which their children and or grandchildren now attend. I understand those feelings of loyalty but we have to understand that what worked in the last half of the previous century won’t work now for a variety of reasons.

One disadvantage of a large system cited by advocates of our current small districts is that students would be spending too much time on buses. In actual fact, as an example, a district made up of the current Silver Creek, Forestville, and Fredonia districts would be very similar in size to the current Cassadaga Valley Central District and I’ve never heard complaints about students spending too many hours on the bus in that district.

Another concern of those who favor small districts is that students would lose both their identity in a large district along with the personal relationships with adults in their community. I don’t understand the concern because younger children and teenagers adapt to change well, and while they might be in a different building, all of their classmates and friends would be there also. As far as relationships with adults in the community, I fail to see how those relationships would be impacted.

Proponents of small districts advance the idea that large districts do not automatically translate to better instruction and better learning results. While there is a theoretical chance that could happen, larger school districts nearly always have considerably lower costs per student because of the economies of scale. A larger district will be able to provide students with more advanced placement courses and more opportunities for educational enrichment than small districts are able to provide.

The argument that larger schools afford fewer opportunities to participate in scholastic sports is a questionable argument when one considers that in recent years many of our regions small schools have had to merge many if not all of their sports teams with other districts in order to field teams because of falling enrollment and participation. Larger districts, because of higher enrollment, will certainly be able support a full slate of teams and even add sports, affording more opportunities for participation and not less.

Some critics make the analogy that removing a school from a community is like ripping the community’s heart out. However, I’ve always seen neighborhoods, churches and the people living in a community as part of its heart also. Further, in a larger district student would have an opportunity to become part of a larger and more diverse community, to meet new people, make new friends and participate in the district’s social life. For many this will be a valuable time to widen their horizons in preparation for higher education and the pursuit of a career.

As for the argument that large districts would force students to endure an urban lifestyle, I think I can dispel that argument by pointing out that most consolidated school districts in the United States are located in rural and suburban areas — not in cities.

In both the short term and long term, our schools are facing a crisis. I’m not sure what the short-term solution is for schools, but I firmly believe that the long-term solution lies in the consolidation of our small school districts in large ones supported by larger more robust tax bases, able to operate more efficiently with lower costs per student.

Currently stumbling blocks exist in this path, but they must be overcome. If, as is often said by school administrators, teachers’ unions and school boards that “it’s all about the kids,” then they must be overcome now.

Thomas Kirkpatrick Sr. is a Silver Creek resident. Send comments to editorial@observertoday.com

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