By Anita Prentice
The definitive history of why there are two main school districts in a town of 10,000 people is yet to be written. I’ll share some thoughts, but while I am a member of the Garrison School Board, these comments do not reflect the opinion of that School Board and are mine alone. Garrison and Haldane have never been a single school district. At one point in the early twentieth century, there were 14 school districts in Philipstown, reflecting a time when each student walked to a one-room schoolhouse. (Earlier, in 1870, there were over 11,000 school districts in New York State; following a state-mandated reorganization in 1947 there are 700 today.) These 14 districts eventually consolidated down to two, Garrison and Haldane. The property and population distributions in the two communities, reflecting the differences in land use and employment, resulted in a very different tax base in each. Garrison has fewer people, and has never grown to a size that would merit a Garrison high school. (After World War II, actually, the housing growth in Continental Village might have produced a larger Garrison district, but those homes were ceded to the Lakeland school district.) Garrison has been fortunate to have two school districts as neighbors (Haldane and Highland Falls) who offer a high school education to Garrison students, for paid tuition. The tuition is negotiated between the superintendents and boards of each district. Each district is a separate taxing unit; town and village taxes do not support the schools.
Because the Garrison and Haldane districts have remained separate entities for so long, each now has a different property tax rate, different schedule of teacher salaries, different relationships with contractors and service providers, and different traditions. All these things act as barriers to a merger of the districts. The tax rate difference is the most significant obstacle. This difference is not something that the districts themselves can change; state action is required. Garrison residents, who would likely pay higher taxes, have a financial disincentive to work towards this change. In addition, many people in both districts like the status quo. Both Haldane and Garrison offer small elementary classes, and each school has a family feel that no one wants to give up. Students in both schools achieve well in the present configuration, and no one knows what a merged district might bring. It is likely that there could be more academic and enriching extracurricular opportunities for students in a merged district, which to my mind would be the best reason to explore consolidation. Another reason would be to create a greater sense of Philipstown-wide community. However, there are also many unknowns. Education is a labor-intensive endeavor; there are few economies of scale to be had without negatively affecting children. Research has proved small class sizes to be better for student learning. Both districts scrutinize their budgets closely for savings each year and there are probably fewer efficiencies to be had from consolidation than one might intuit.
At an exploratory forum on school consolidation held by Assemblywoman Sandy Galef last year, New York State’s Dr. Deborah Cunningham opined that the gap between the Garrison and Haldane combined wealth ratios (a State formula) meant that we were not good candidates for consolidation unless something major was to change. The Garrison School Board has worked increasingly closely with the Haldane CSD to share services such as transportation and our superintendents cooperate in many ways. Both districts participate in a statewide purchasing contract for many supplies and services, as well as in many regional school district associations that look for savings and also advocate for relief from unfunded mandates.
Moving here from Pennsylvania 11 years ago, from an area where school district boundaries were contiguous with township boundaries, I was very surprised to discover the two small districts of Philipstown (and the large number of Philipstown residents who attend the Lakeland Schools). In the intervening years, I have yet to come up with a single definitive answer that explains why our two small districts continue to persist separately side-by-side, but persist they do. But also in that time, I have seen each district do a better and better job of educating their community’s children, and each of us is justifiably proud of the accomplished students who are our graduates. The students are something to celebrate now, whatever the future may hold.
A guide to the history of school district reorganization in NY State can be found HERE .