Cheektowaga school district consolidation up for debate
While all districts have taken their respective hard hits, meeting participants seemed to agree on one thing: Consolidation is not necessarily the answer, nor will it guarantee a decrease in school taxes.
A common misconception about school taxes, according to Cheektowaga Supervisor Mary Holtz, is that the Town of Cheektowaga has any control over them. Holtz said that with the case of consolidation, the only way it will work is from the top down – that ultimately, it’s in the hands of New York State.
“It [district consolidation] came up at a town board meeting,” Cheektowaga Central Board President Brian Gould said at Monday’s meeting. “The public thinks that the town board can do something about it. They don’t have the facts.”
Each district’s school tax rates (rounded to the nearest tenth) per $1,000 assessed on a home are as follows: $26.88 for Cheektowaga Central; $29.19 for Maryvale; $43.80 for Cleveland Hill; $33.06 for Depew; $53.87 for Cheektowaga-Sloan; $25.61 for Lancaster; $26.84 for West Seneca; and $28.29 for Williamsville. That means that two Cheektowaga residents, one residing in the Cleveland Hill district and the other in Cheektowaga-Sloan, both with houses worth $100,000 pay a $1,007 difference in school taxes. And two houses, each worth $100,000, in the Cheektowaga Central and Maryvale districts would pay a difference of $231 in school taxes.
So why the disparities in school tax rates?
A few factors contribute to a district’s school tax rate, including assessed home value and commercial offsets. Commercial offsets explain the high taxes in Cheektowaga-Sloan, as the district is mostly residential and therefore collects taxes primarily from residences rather than businesses. On the opposite end, Cheektowaga Central, which lies in an industrial area, has lower school taxes because of businesses’ contributions, offsetting costs.
But despite the differences in school tax rates, consolidation of districts may not result in savings. In fact, the exact opposite could happen.
“I’ve read the numbers for our board – and there are a lot of hypotheticals in and around the numbers – and the bottom line is [Cheektowaga] Central’s taxes go up 15 percent [with consolidation],” Cheektowaga Central Superintendent Dennis Kane explained.
“I can’t imagine Cheektowaga-Central saying, ‘Oh this is great. We’d like to have one school district with JFK and our taxes go up 15 to 20 percent,’” Holtz told The Cheektowaga Source in a recent interview. “It’s a small area, but even so, you’re assimilating a lot of costs. And there will be savings probably, but how much is it worth? Unless somebody offsets the cost of a school district, they’re never going to accept it. It’s human nature – you’re not going to raise your taxes. It’s so easy to say, ‘Let’s consolidate,’ but you have to look at the costs.”
But the various board members and administrators who attended Monday’s meeting, as well as the Cheektowaga supervisor, supported the prospect of a consolidation study, though it would have to be conducted through an outside agency because of high costs.
“I’m not against a consolidation study if it saves the taxpayer money; it [the issue] is just how it will proceed,” Holtz said. “Somebody’s got to come through with a formula on how to consolidate these districts. How do you do it, and how does it work so you don’t harm another school district?”
But funding of a consolidation study is a whole other issue. Assemblyman Dennis Gabryszak, however, is making attempts to see a study happen.
“Assemblyman Gabryszak made a request to the Department of Education asking if there was funding available to do consolidation studies,” said Adam Locher, district office manger for Dennis Gabryszak. “They told us no, and we went to the Department of State, who told us at the time we were too late for the most recent round of study funding, so that’s where it lies right now.”
Tom Kulaszewski, board member at Cleveland Hill, said that district board members are receiving mixed messages about consolidation.
“At the legislative breakfast, a specific question came up about the push toward consolidation, and our representative said that the heat is off – if there is a push for consolidation it’s not coming from the legislature; it’s coming from communities,” he said. “Personally, I think we’re getting mixed messages. It might be worthwhile to continue the discussion, but I’m unclear as to whether or not there’s a financial incentive for the schools to consolidate or what the benefits of consolidation would be.”
Kulaszewski added that while the state has mandated the creation of an additional 250 charter schools – which essentially have the same costs as public schools – there has been an increase in requests to combine traditional public schools.
“If you think about it in terms of reality, not one district can absorb all of our students,” Cheektowaga-Sloan board member Denise McCowan contended. “Our buildings are all going to have to be around; our teachers are all going to have to be around; our administrative staff – with the exception of our maybe superintendent and business manager. All of the budgets are still going to be there. Where are the savings? There’s not too much savings. When you take one superintendent’s salary, it still is going to change pennies in a budget; it’s not going to do much.”
The ultimate outcome of consolidation is a fundamental uncertainty.
“I think people try and talk about consolidation, but then when they realize it’s not much savings… it’s not going to go anywhere for our kids,” said McCowan. “And I don’t see any of the other districts that want to root for higher taxes because that’s what is going to happen.”
Kulaszewski said that most of the consolidation talk is not coming from parents or taxpayers; but from the media and politicians. While taxpayers may think consolidation will lead to a decrease in school taxes throughout the districts, the reality is that some districts may slightly benefit and others will see a sharp rise in school taxes.
School board members pointed out a 2009 consolidation analysis conducted by the UB Regional Institute that examined school district reorganization in Western New York. The institute’s policy brief analyzed potential cost savings from consolidation, as well as opportunities for expanded regional collaboration and new models for technological communication to bridge the educational divide.
According to the analysis, “Key drivers behind the push to consolidate are cost efficiencies and increased educational equity by the redistribution of educational opportunity, quality and resource allocation.”
But the examination brief found that only districts with small enrollments are likely to see significant cost savings as a result of consolidation. And studies suggest that schools with enrollments under 1,000 are the best applicants for mergers.
One solution that both UB Regional Institute examination and school board members offered was the consideration of distance learning, which would combine schools’ classes that occur at the same time, but some students would participate remotely. Different methods of communication are used in distance learning, including videoconference, direct-broadcast satellite, message boards, email, video, fax – pretty much every type of modern communication has been used in distance learning.
Mary Morris, Cheektowaga Central assistant superintendent, created a chart that illustrated each school’s schedules to help indicate when classes are concurrent – and if they are, could distance learning work?
“You didn’t change your schedule – who could you dance with?” asked Kane, referring to the chart. “If your schedule stayed the same, what do you have in common and who could you dance with? It’s quite interesting because some districts have more options than other districts and there’s more commonality that some districts have with other districts.”
Distance learning is typically successful and affords students the opportunities to participate in classes they would otherwise not be offered. With budget cuts eliminating some classes altogether, board members agreed that distance learning would be valuable in its opportunities.
But several questions remain regarding scheduling, technology use, allocation of resources, and collective bargaining agreements.
“I think we’ve got to look at the reality – it’s the consolidation of services,” said Kenneth Graber, Lancaster School District board member.
So while consolidation may not be in the best interests of districts and taxpayers, distance learning is an alternative that could lead to greater possibilities for students, as well as potentially lower school taxes.
“I think we just need to look for opportunities for our kids,” added Deborah Ziolkowski, Maryvale Schools superintendent. “And that’s what started this whole conversation with scheduling and everything else. And it’s not that we have to have matching schedules because we need to celebrate the uniqueness of us, but you need to look for ways within that schedule. In the meantime, we need to look for opportunities within our curriculum that offer what’s best for our kids in Cheektowaga. And as long as we say that, we’re doing what’s right for kids.”