Mergers among school study topics

By Geoff Samuels
At last Wednesday’s board of education meeting, Margaretville Central School Superintendent Anthony Albanese gave a presentation in which he highlighted some of the key proposals that the state Board of Regents is considering for New York States’ school districts. Noting that the financial hardships that have existed over the past few years are likely to continue for some time, Albanese stressed that it’s important that the public become aware of changes that are occurring at a high level, changes that will affect many, if not all, school districts throughout the state.

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Citing an article entitled “Regents Consider Increasing Mergers,” published recently in the Albany Times Union, Albanese spoke about how the Board of Regents is looking for solutions to help struggling school districts; solutions that would involve increasing district consolidations, shared services, and the creation of regional high schools.

“I’m not saying our school district is moving in that direction or that any school district is…” he said, “but it’s something definitely on the radar screen.”
The presentation focused on some harsh realities when Albanese told the MCS Board that somewhere between 30 and 50 school districts were projected to reach insolvency within the next two years.

He recounted how at a recent BOCES meeting he was asked where he stood on district consolidation issues to which he replied,

“We want our students to have the best quality education possible, and as funding continues to be a challenging lesson and opportunity for us…and enrolment continues to decline, then it’s possible that our students could end up with less than what they really should have.” “So” he said, “does regionalization make sense…it could make sense….it’s something that needs to be talked through.”
Referring to a statement, in the same Times Union article, that out of the 236 New York State school districts having enrollments of less than 1,000 students, only four underwent mergers in the last decade, Albanese explained that just as our school is “very much the center of our community,” so it is with many other school districts that are small in size.

“If you went into a room full of superintendents,” he said, many might say that consolidation would work for them as long as it was their school that was going to be the regional school. It’s a conversation that we need to have.” He added, “We’re not at the point where we’re being pressured for a decision, but it’s better to talk about it sooner than later.”

Board of Regents underscores importance of pre-kindergarten programs
Albanese continued his presentation now referring to a section of the Board of Regents’ 2013-2014 Conceptual Proposal entitled “Quality Early Learning Opportunities Are a Critical Investment.”
“It caught my eye,” he said. “For the last four years we have had a universal pre-K program. This year we switched from a half-day to a full-day program…and we’re seeing very good results.”
He went on to explain how the district receives $48,000 to run the program, while a full-day program actually cost more than that to run.

“But that’s what we’ve kept at,” he said adding, “There is a sensitivity and awareness that providing early services to children really pays off in the long run.”

“Gap Elimination” can take money out of a school district
One of the biggest issues for school districts moving forward will continue to be the Gap Elimination Adjustment. Gap Elimination is a process by which, if there’s a shortfall in the state’s own budget, money can actually be removed from a school district to cover that shortfall.

“We have had hundreds of thousands of dollars removed from our district over the last couple of years through Gap Elimination,” he said. “That’s where we’re going to have to put our time in working with our local legislators, the governors’ office, and the State Education Department to help people understand that close to a million dollars is a lot of money for a small rural district…it takes away from our students’ programs.”

Board of Regents has long-range plans
There’s also a conversation at the Board of Regents about the formation of regional high schools, said Albanese.

“These themes of conversations continue,” he added, pointing out that they not only highlight what the challenges are for school districts as far as funding, and how to provide an appropriate education for children, but also what the Board of Regents’ long-range plans are. “They’re talking about major changes in the statewide school finances,” he said.

Noting that state aid represents about 40 percent of district revenue across the state, but can vary greatly, Albanese told the board that the MCS District only receives about 32 percent state aid.
“So we’re under that average” he said, “(our higher) property values drive that.”