Hudson Valley school officials to Cuomo: Consolidation not the answer

Gov. Andrew Cuomo had tough words Friday March Gov. Andrew Cuomo had tough words Friday March 15 for local officials facing fiscal crises and seeking more help from Albany, telling them they should consolidate services or whole governments and school districts rather than looking for relief from Albany. Photo Credit: AP

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Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has suggested that the consolidation of school districts may be the only solution to the budget woes many are facing, but some education experts and leaders in the Hudson Valley point to research showing that little money is saved in such mergers.

"Most of the studies that I have seen have not demonstrated the economies of scale," said Nyack Schools Superintendent Jim Montesano.

He recalled working in a New Jersey district that studied various consolidation plans for decades. For one reason or another, none of the studies resulted in a merger, he said.

Consolidation should not be dismissed outright, however, Montesano said. It should be seriously considered only where it can be shown to save money.

Told of skepticism among school officials, a spokesman for the governor was emphatic.

"It defies basic logic to claim that consolidation doesn't save money, especially when 33 percent of superintendents make more than the governor's salary of $179,000," the spokesman, Matt Wing, said Monday.

Five years ago, Andrew Coulson -- a researcher for the libertarian think take Cato Institute -- criticized a Michigan governor for betting on school mergers in the same way. Since then, Coulson said, evidence has mounted against consolidation as a money-saving measure.

"The actual net savings, it is not very great," Coulson said.

He said real savings are achieved through consolidation only when the merging districts are very small.

A study of school consolidations in New York from 1985 to 1997 found that merging two school districts with fewer than 1,500 students did save 8 percent on operating costs. But in densely populated Westchester County, there are only five districts that small.

Administrators are worried that consolidations raise a lot of issues that are hard to resolve, such as employee contracts, property tax shifts and increased costs for busing students over longer distances.

In Orange County, three school districts in the Town of Warwick -- Warwick, Florida and Greenwood Lake -- appear to have the ideal characteristics for consolidation. Two of them are small, enrollment is declining in the schools and the districts are relatively close in proximity.

Still, Warwick Valley Central Schools Superintendent Ray Bryant, who has been stumping for a consolidation study, said talks are at a standstill. He convened municipal and school leaders just last Monday and found little interest in even studying the issue. Bryant believes leaders are afraid of tampering with community identity.

Whatever the reason, Bryant said, mergers won't happen locally unless there is a state mandate.

"There is an unwillingness of people to simply have the issue explored," Bryant said. "Without a push to make it happen, it's not going to happen. Until they're down and out, nobody is going to do something different."

Paul Feiner, supervisor for the Town of Greenburgh, has a middle-ground solution. Rather than consolidate, he believes districts should share staff, such as superintendents, administrators and clerical workers.

"Most school districts in Westchester pay superintendents more than $200,000 [not counting benefits]," Feiner said in an email response. "Westchester continues to have the highest taxes in the United States. Unless we think out of the box and do things differently, our taxes will either continue to rise or the quality of services [including education] will go down."

Feiner said he has brought the proposal up with some school districts in Greenburgh, but he has not had much success persuading any of them to act on his suggestion.

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