AURELIUS — An uncommon occurrence — two full school boards meeting as one — was witnessed Tuesday as the Port Byron and Weedsport central school districts held a joint board work session to discuss mergers and shared services.
Both full boards, both superintendents and both business administrators met at the Cayuga-Onondaga BOCES building, a neutral location where they could meet equally to discuss potentially sensitive issues.
Education consultant Alan Pole, who has experience with school consolidation and shared services, was the facilitator and said his purpose was less to sell the idea of merging or sharing and more to sell the idea of being educated about both options and how to approach them.
Pole described the current environment in New York state, saying three factors have contributed to a situation in which districts are looking closer at sharing costs.
First, expectations for students are constantly increasing. Second, enrollments in this area are declining steadily. Pole pointed out that over the last five years, both Port Byron’s and Weedsport’s enrollments have dropped 10.9 percent.
Last, increasing costs for districts to operate coupled with the state’s fiscal crisis create a lack of money.
“There just is no money,” Pole said. “All the costs continue to go up at a time when the revenue is just not there.”
Pole’s bottom line is that “business as usual will not be an option.” He said while Gov. Andrew Cuomo is advising districts to rely on their reserves, such a move doesn’t solve the underlying problem.
“We all know that spending out your fund balances is a one-year fix,” he said.
He said there are several reasons districts consider merging together, such as increased course offerings, reduction of redundant courses and services and the attractive state-provided extra operating aid given to districts that consolidate.
The state formula used to determine how much extra aid the two districts would receive over the course of 15 years if they joined as one yields a figure of about $30 million.
“That’s what’s getting people’s attention,” Pole said.
But even with obvious financial advantages and advantages to programming for students, there are aspects of merging that make it hard to swallow for districts and communities alike, Pole said.
“Many, many school districts find merging way too invasive,” he said. “There are 100 reasons districts don’t want to consider a merger.”
When merging is not an option, sharing services may be. Pole listed things that could be shared, from athletics to transportation, from food services to electives and different language offerings.
“Why are we duplicating all these things?” he asked. “Do we need two of everything in Port Byron and Weedsport? Do we need nine of everything in Cayuga County?”
Pole said Port Byron and Weedsport may want to look into sharing non-core course offerings and support services, such as transportation, buildings and grounds and business functions.
Although various members of the two boards had different ideas for how to proceed with the discussion, it was a general consensus that it should continue in the form of smaller monthly meetings involving a couple board members from each district, along with the superintendents, business administrators and a BOCES representative.
Weedsport board member Eric Zizza said the districts could begin by sharing “benign” things like equipment and eventually include more in-depth program sharing, like college courses, facilities and staff.
Port Byron Superintendent Neil O’Brien said he is most interested in eliminating redundant spending and improving opportunities for students.
Weedsport’s Superintendent Shaun O’Connor said the process of deciding what can be shared will take time, but is glad it’s started.
“I’m pleased that there was an outcome of this meeting where we will continue to meet,” he said. “It is going to take some time, some thought and some effort to develop meaningful outcomes.”
Staff writer Kelly Voll can be reached at 282-2239 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at CitizenVoll.