School consolidation on Cuomo's agenda

Staff report
When Governor Andrew Cuomo gives his State of the State address on Wednesday, he is expected to make a strong case for education reform and urge small school districts to consolidate.
However, many of the proposals that the governor is expected to pitch have already come under fire from educators.

“These recommendations, though well meaning, don’t move the ball far enough down the field to stop the increased slide of these districts into fiscal and programmatic insolvency,” said Rick Timbs, executive director of the Statewide School Finance Consortium, which represents 400 public schools. 

 State Education Department officials say that about 240 of the 700 school districts statewide have enrollments of fewer than 1,000 students, including those in the Catskill Region. According to the state Education Department’s latest data, the student enrollments are: Andes, 102; Downsville, 286; Delhi, 750; Margaretville, 391; Roxbury, 335; Stamford, 354; South Kortright, 378; and Walton, 983.

A preliminary report released last week by the governor’s Education Reform Commission recommends not only consolidation, but also the creation of regional high schools as ways to possibly reduce duplication of services and cut costs.

But local schools superintendents have been quick to point out that such recommendations are much easier said than done.

“There’s no mechanism in place for consolidation,” said Andes School Superintendent Robert Chakar. “The problem is that children will be on school buses for over an hour each way.”
Roxbury School Superintendent Tom O’Brien pointed out that the state has yet to provide guidelines.

“Consolidation does not work to save money without the proper structure,” said O’Brien. “Why would a district that has no debt want to consolidate with a district that does? What happens to the tax rates? What happens to the negotiated contracts?”

The answers, according to administrators, remain unclear.
Margaretville School Superintendent Tony Albanese said the discussion has already begun in his district.

Topic of discussion
“I have brought forth the concept of regional high schools based on the Regent’s Action Plan to our board and community,” he said. “Whether or not the concept will work in our area of great distances and rural communities, additional discussion will certainly be necessary.”  

Cuomo’s speech is expected to draw heavily from the recommendations made by his 25-member commission. While this region’s districts have low enrollments, they are by no means the lowest.
According to state data, there are a number of districts on Long Island with single and double-digit enrollments.

The commission is recommending new laws to make consolidation easier, but its report has been blasted by many educators for not addressing the inequities in the distribution of state aid.
“It’s an empty shirt,” said O’Brien. “Basically the present funding structure in New York State was set around 2006 and things have remained frozen,” he added.