Op-ed column: Merger of school districts would be beneficial for both
As the outgoing Northville superintendent has stated, the upcoming votes on merging the Mayfield and Northville school districts will be a huge decision for both communities.
If the voters — especially in Northville — are able to see past their local pride, then a decision to merge with Mayfield will be a big win for everyone.
This vote — a nonbinding resolution on Sept. 18 and then the binding referendum on Oct. 25 — as well as a similar opportunity in St. Johnsville and Oppenheim-Ephrata, will be a test of the quality of local leadership.
Local pride is, of course, not a sufficient reason to resist a rational merger plan that will benefit residents and students of both school districts. Nor is unrealistic anxiety a good reason to resist a good idea.
These two merger plans are in harmony with the Suozzi Commission report of 2008, which provided recommendations for the purpose of giving property tax relief to New York state residents.
Reducing the burden
One major part of that report dealt with school consolidation as a way to help public schools become more efficient. The whole point was to help reduce the tax burden on property owners.
A merger of small districts with fewer than 1,000 students provides opportunities to save money for local property owners. School administrative and health care costs can be reduced, not just for one budget year, but for multiple years. Long-term cost reductions are all about creating new budgetary efficiencies. So far, so good.
For Northville and Mayfield, the incentive money will total almost $19 million over a 15-year period. The claim that Northville would sacrifice an immediate $500,000 to bring Northville teachers up to pay parity with the Mayfield teachers is questionable. In any case it is a sum that pales next to the long-term gain of $19 million in extra state incentive money.
Consolidation is no new idea. State Education Department information indicates nearly 11,000 school districts were scattered around New York in 1870. By 1955, only 3,000 school districts remained.
Today in 2012 we have fewer than 700 school districts. In the world of public education, small has often proven to be less than best.
Local priorities are unfortunately as often based on emotion as they are based on sense.
Out there in the world of cliché-laden local thinking and the constant glare of TV images in local homes, one or two misinformed but influential local personalities can all too easily build an edifice of inaccurate facts and misguided opinions. Usually, the inflated local fears revolve around unfounded anxieties about the loss of community identity.
In this case, the fears are not really grounded in reality: Each community will keep its own elementary school that can retain the community name. Moreover, the middle school will be in Northville; the high school will be in Mayfield. That seems fair enough.
A failure of the merger vote in Northville and Mayfield will undoubtedly lead to the continuation of the cycle of very painful staff and program reductions that damage the quality of education.
Other reasons speak in favor of the consolidation. Outstanding debts in both districts can be reduced. One consolidated district can also create a fresh pool of reserve money for future protection against unforeseen reductions in normal state aid for public schools. Such reserves have been depleted in the climate of funding problems during the last few years.
In addition, some extra money held in a fund balance can be used to provide a future tax relief cushion for property owners. Both Northville and Mayfield students will also profit from added educational opportunities.
A combination of the two districts will provide the resources for an expansion of Advanced Placement offerings or the beginning of an International Baccalaureate program that some farsighted districts such as Schenectady and Ballston Spa have already started. Both the AP and IB programs provide not only accelerated instruction for motivated high-school students but they also provide college credit opportunities for them. Northville alone is too small for an International Baccalaureate program.
According to the merger study commissioned by the two districts, Mayfield residents will achieve a property tax decrease of about 20 percent, which is slightly less than an average $500 per tax bill. Northville residents would see no real change in their tax load. That is just for the first year. Other years hold the promise of significant tax benefits for Northville residents.
It is hard to find good reasons against such mergers — beyond a stubborn local pride that goes beyond common sense. The fear that a consolidated board of education would be automatically dominated by Mayfield representatives is not realistic. Even so, a side deal between the two districts to guarantee equal initial representation on a consolidated school board would alleviate these concerns.
Against the national problem of poor leadership — in corporations, in banks, in colleges, in Congress, in regulatory agencies — this merger issue facing our local districts is a microcosm of the wider national problem.
It is always exasperating to see a good leader with vision and integrity — in this case outgoing Northville Superintendent Kathy Dougherty — leave a position prematurely for whatever reasons. Good leaders who are much more than public relations operatives for their own careers are not a dime a dozen. The loss of a smart leader in her prime is a loss for the public at any level of leadership. Especially the loss of one as astute as Dougherty has been.
This specific merger plan is reasonable, rational and prudent. It creates opportunities for small villages and towns to raise their community profiles. Both districts have big opportunities here. In this case, there is nothing to fear either for Northville residents or for Mayfield residents.
Call the new district Sacandaga, or even revive the name Cranberry Creek. The long-term benefits far outweigh any short-term local anxieties. A merger will also give two small towns a more important place on the regional map. A clear yes vote will increase their clout politically and economically. Whether it is an issue of a school merger between Northville and Mayfield or between St. Johnsville and Oppenheim, or perhaps even between Schoharie and Middleburgh, school consolidations simply make good sense.
L.D. Davison lives in Amsterdam and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.