Cost savings, educational benefits, busing questioned
By Michael Turton
Conventional lore holds that a school district consolidation debate involves a lot of heat and not much light. But in western Putnam County, there has been little heat or light, much less debate, over the concept of possibly merging the Haldane Central, Putnam Valley Central and Garrison Union Free School Districts.
“Other than in the press or in small pockets of our communities, there just does not seem (to be) a big push to undertake a (consolidation) study,” said Mark Villanti, superintendent of schools at Haldane Central School District.
There is certainly no lack of precedent for consolidation elsewhere in New York state and in the past. In the early 1900s there were more than 10,000 school districts in what was then a very rural state. Today there are fewer than 700; however the pace of consolidations has slowed dramatically. Fifty-six school districts reorganized between 1983 and 1998. Four have consolidated since 2000, and four upstate districts are currently merging to become two.
Pros and cons
The New York State Education Department (NYSED) website lists numerous reasons why mergers may be beneficial — reduced costs; greater variety of courses offered; larger, more diversely qualified teaching staff; and upgraded facilities among them. While state aid has been significantly reduced to local districts for each of the past five years, NYSED offers hefty incentives to districts that merge, at least in the short term.
Consolidating districts can receive up to a 40 percent increase in operating aid for five years, followed by declining increases for another nine years. They can also receive a 30 percent increase in aid for capital projects undertaken within 10 years of consolidation. While that is enticing, a number of studies, organizations and experts, not to mention local education officials, don’t see consolidation as a “slam dunk.”
A 2005 report from the National Rural Education Association found that educational and financial results of school district consolidations “do not meet legislated expectations,” and a task force from that organization concluded, “smaller districts produce higher student achievement.” Similarly, a 2004 report produced by the Phoenix-based Goldwater Institute stated that consolidation actually increases administrative costs and class size while reducing student achievement.
Districts and evidence vary
Because each school district is unique, and because there are so many factors involved — from differences in enrollment, tax rates and teachers’ salaries to community pride in smaller schools, local economic differences and transportation needs — there is simply no universal answer when it comes to consolidation.
John Yinger and William Duncombe are professors at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, and experts on the economics of school district size. In a May 2010 article in The School Administrator, they underlined the uncertain nature of consolidation, stating: “Overall, the net impact of consolidation on education costs per pupil is not clear. Some factors indicate (it) is likely to tap into economies of size and thereby lower these costs, but other factors suggest (it) might actually cause costs per pupil to rise.”
No mergers on local horizon
Villanti’s observation that there is little local interest in consolidation is echoed by Gillian Thorpe, vice president of the Haldane School Board. “When I first came on the board, I thought consolidation made sense. In the end I do not believe we would save money.” For Thorpe, it’s not just about finances. “I wanted my kids to go to Haldane. I’ve spent time in other schools, even teaching in a few. None even came close to the uniqueness Haldane offers. It’s more than a school; it’s part of our community.”
Some research indicates that consolidation is most appropriate for school districts of 300 or fewer students. But at Garrison Union Free School (GUFS), a district with fewer than 200 K-8 students, there is no enthusiasm for merger. “There is nothing wrong with the idea of consolidation in principle. The challenge is to identify opportunities that present clear and compelling benefits for both the students and the taxpayers of each of the potentially consolidated districts,” said Garrison School Board President Ray O’Rourke. “As to the idea of some combination of Garrison, Haldane and/or PutnamValley, it is not at all clear from a Garrison perspective that this threshold test can be met.”
GUFS Superintendent Gloria Colucci said that in the 1980s the idea of a regional high school was discussed but was not found to be economically feasible. She also said that GUFS looked at consolidation with Haldane in the 1990s but determined it was not advantageous financially. She said that mutual cooperation and sharing of services offers more. “We talk to Haldane all the time about things such as special education and transportation,” she said. Haldane and GUFS recently created a joint special education program, a move that saved both districts money.
Many experts believe that consolidation is not effective for districts having more than 1,500 students. Putnam Valley Central School District has more than 1,800 K-12 students, and Superintendent Barbara Nuzzi sees other issues as the priority. “The tax cap is one large concern; the other is unfunded and underfunded (state) mandates. These mandates total approximately $10 million dollars or 25 percent of our budget.” She said that her district considered consolidation several years ago. “Prior to the building of our high school, a neighboring district was approached by Putnam Valley with the concept of merging. That district did not respond favorably.”
Putnam Valley Board of Education President Valerie Fitzgerald said that a local meeting a number of years ago at which NYSED officials discussed consolidation, the data reinforced that merger is most beneficial in small, rural school districts upstate. She also expressed concern that consolidation would lead to higher salaries. “You don’t lower salaries and benefits,” she said, explaining that when salaries differ between merging school districts, the higher wages are adopted.
Local officials agree that a three-way merger would result in increased busing costs — and longer bus rides. While the three districts lie within 15 miles of each other, routes from Haldane or Garrison to PutnamValley are anything but direct. “Do parents and students want 40- to 50-minute bus rides?” Villanti asked.
Residents must approve consolidation
The New York State Department of State pays 90 percent of the cost of a feasibility study when districts want to consider consolidation. Studies generally cost from $25,000 to $50,000. In some areas, preliminary studies have been done at a fraction of that cost to determine if a full study is warranted.
When school boards do decide to merge, a public referendum must be held to approve or reject the reorganization.
Fitzgerald said that any discussion of consolidation should start at the administrative level. “I don’t think anyone would object to (the three local districts) sitting down and talking about it.”
State legislators weigh in
NYSED plays a huge role in both the content and cost of education. State Assemblywoman Sandy Galef and state Sen. Terry Gipson both acknowledge the need for alternative ways of reducing costs while still providing top-rate learning opportunities.
“We should look at all options, whether it’s cooperative agreements, shared services or consolidation,” Galef said. “We want to be sure we give our children a good education, but at the same time we need to find savings wherever we can, to lower the cost and to assist property tax payers.”
Gipson, who has advocated consideration of an income-based tax to support education rather than the current property-based tax, said, “Consolidation should be decided on a local level. On the state level, we must change the way we fund our school systems to ease the burden of high property taxes, while still upholding the highest level of education.”
When any school district ponders consolidation, increased learning opportunities are an obvious factor, but in the end, cost remains the single biggest issue. “Frankly, yes, the major point of consolidating districts is to save money. If any district does not believe that the end result will mean savings to the taxpayer, I just cannot imagine any interest to move ahead,” Villanti said.
Local School Districts at a Glance
Haldane Central School District
2012-13 Budget: $21,927,476*
K-12 enrollment: 922
Cost per student per year: $23,437**
Tax levy rate per $1,000 assessed value: $33
Garrison Union Free School District
2012-13 budget: $9,475,913*
K-8 student enrollment: 223
(Garrison also currently budgets for 97 students who attend Haldane or O’Neill High School or special education classes, a cost that is reflected below.)
Cost per student per year: $25,452**
Tax levy rate per $1,000 assessment:
Philipstown property owners………… $19.00
Putnam Valley property owners…….. $9.33
Putnam Valley Central School District
2012-13 budget: $45,270,917*
K-12 student enrollment: 1,812
Cost per student per year: $24,689**
Tax levy rate per $1,000 assessed value:
Putnam Valley property owners: $25.17
Carmel property owners: $41.79
Cortlandt property owners: $1,282.34***
** Excludes capital projects
** Source: NYSED 2010-11 Report Card
***In Cortlandt, properties are assessed at less than 2 percent of market value, thus the high tax levy rate. By contrast, property is assessed at about 96 percent of market value in Putnam Valley.
Photos by M. Turton