One controversial debate in local education that never ends—but also never leads anywhere—is whether our many small or medium-size school districts should merge with their neighbors.
Many people have contended (and still do) that merging districts would lead to new efficiencies, tighter budgets and lower property taxes. Others say that the savings would be negligible and would not improve the quality of education offered (but could hurt it).
The NYS School Boards Association put out a report Thursday on this very topic, entitled “To Merge or Not to Merge.” It frames the issues well. But I’m not sure that it will change the nature of the debate.
First off, the report found that mergers can lead to savings—BUT primarily for small districts. Of course, the Lower Hudson Valley is filled with small districts (where there is little evidence of support for mergers).
Mergers may lead to additional state aid, as well as new educational and extra-curricular opportunities (with merged districts contributing their own offerings).
The potential “cons,” according to the report, are loss of community identity, higher salaries for administrators who remain, longer bus rides, the logistical difficulty of making mergers happen, and even, in some instances, higher taxes.
The report urges school leaders thinking about a merger to consider the potential winners and losers, the likely educational outcomes and whether school boards and administrators have the credibility with residents to make a merger happen. “Residents who believe they are misinformed about any aspect of a merger can call into question any and all aspects of the merger,” the report says. “Therefore, building trust and credibility begins with selecting the right consultant.”
Districts will also need buy-in from unions and students.
The report does not recommend that districts merge or not merge. It explains the many, diverse issues involved and makes clear that a merger can’t be all about saving dollars.
The report’s conclusion includes this: “Finally, school leaders must look beyond any balance sheet and academic implications of a merger and deal with the potential for a high level of emotional or sentimental attachment to a district in the community. Regardless of the benefits, school leaders must recognize that they may need to overcome the community’s fear of losing its identity, especially in smaller communities where the school district is a major source of identity.”
And that’s really the big issue in this area. People move here for the schools. Many like living in small districts where they know the superintendent, the principal, the PTA president, the teachers, the school secretaries, the sports coaches, the band leaders. While some will always be in favor of steps that could lead to savings, many suburbanites would be extremely hesitant to support a merger with the district next door.
And a merger would require multiple votes in each of the communities involved.