KENMORE — Anyone wishing to gauge public opinion on school consolidation in Western New York should have been at a recent meeting of the Sweet Home School District Board of Education.
The hot topic at the March 18 meeting was whether or not to close Heritage Heights Elementary School, to save money and enhance existing educational resources.
Districts across the state are having great difficulty maintaining non-mandated programs and clubs, in the face of a rigid property tax cap imposed by Albany. Sweet Home officials have been studying a building closure for at least a couple of years and finally made the proposal official, about two months ago.
The public’s reaction was predictable. No parent wants his or her child’s school to close, forcing students to adapt to a new building, with unfamiliar surroundings and new faces.
Families arrived early for the school board session, some more than willing to pose out by the road, where a TV crew could presumably get a better shot. The meeting room was filled to capacity, a rarity, in this district. The number of residents in attendance is normally in the single digits.
During the public comment period, there were emotional pleas made to keep the school open, in the fall. Adults cited the need for small class sizes, keeping quality teachers on staff and ensuring that students stay on a steady academic track. Children told board members they would miss their friends and how much they love going to school.
After almost 90 minutes of comments, the board voted to keep the school open in September. The vote was 5-2.
Listening to the comments, I could not help but think how difficult it would be to consolidate any Western New York school districts. The possibility of closing one school came across as heresy. What would parents do if it had been proposed for the entire Sweet Home district to merge with the adjacent Ken-Ton district? The two superintendents would probably be lynched.
Consolidation is being promoted at many layers of government by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. His tax freeze proposal would give certain property taxpayers a personal income tax credit, for increases in property tax bills for the next two years, if their school districts stay within the property tax cap and, in later years, develop plans for sharing or consolidating services.
The New York State School Board Association is opposed to the tax cap, claiming it would remove decision-making from elected school board members and fails to recognize the consolidations and collaborative efforts that school districts have already undertaken.
Cuomo’s Competitive Education Grants for Management Efficiency program rewards school districts that have implemented strategies to improve management, while maintaining or improving student achievement.
“Our education system must become more efficient and focus spending on student achievement,” Cuomo said, in a March 2013 press release. “Innovation and bold action can reduce inefficiency and unnecessary costs.”
The “bold action” proposed by the Sweet Home administration went over like a lead balloon. The governor’s message did not filter down to the sidewalk level of democracy, demonstrated by the agitated Heritage Heights family.
The response the administration received was similar to what happened when Mark Poloncarz – then a candidate for county executive – spoke in 2011 about the number of volunteer fire companies in Erie County.
Poloncarz said the emergency response network at the local volunteer level is outdated and more costly than it needs to be. He suggested consolidation of some fire districts as a solution, triggering a buzz saw response from the Erie County Fire District Officers Association.
Most Western New Yorkers enjoy the comfort provided by neighborhood schools and the overall status quo. Without it, many are afraid to step outside the bubble. But, in the case of the Sweet Home district, the option of closing a school remains a distinct possibility. in the near future.
Brace yourself for more “bold action,” at all levels of local government.
David F. Sherman is managing editor of Bee Group Newspapers and a columnist for the Weekly Independent Newspapers of Western New York, a group of community newspapers with a combined circulation of 286,500 readers. Opinions expressed here are those of the author. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.