Brocton-Westfield merger study in final stage

OBSERVER Staff Report

The Western New York Educational Service Council team which is doing the feasibility study for a possible merger of the Brocton and Westfield school districts recently released a summary of its work to date.

The group is now in the process of writing a final report that must be submitted to the New York State Education Department. The report is due on Feb. 15.

Since September, the team – Robert Christmann, Thomas Schmidt, David Kurzawa and Marilyn Kurzawa – has been meeting with school personnel, community members, and members of the District Advisory Committee to gain insights, gather data, and analyze perceptions in the two school districts and their communities

The merger process is governed and guided by NYSED’s Office of Pre-kindergarten through 12 Education’s Office of Educational Management Services.

NYSED requires the WNYESC team to submit its report to the department prior to releasing any final recommendations to the public. The key questions are whether there can be sufficient cost savings and improved educational programming. If so, the department allows the merger process to go forward.

If the process does go forward, the boards of education of the two school districts will receive the report on March 20 at a joint meeting.

There will then be a period of time for public comment before each board votes to continue or abandon the merger process. If both boards agree to continue, there will be a “straw” vote around June 18. If this vote is positive, there will be a final vote on Oct. 9 that will determine if the two districts become a single, merged district. Following that, a new board of education would be elected and the new district would begin on July 1, 2014.

A vast quantity of both qualitative and quantitative data was gathered and reviewed. Members of the WNYESC team began by interviewing all school administrators and directors of services to learn about the operations of the district and their perceptions about the pros and cons of a merger.

Focus group meetings allowed participants to learn about the demographics, current and projected enrollments, current budget realities, and the status of programming for students. The participants then provided responses to the set of questions asked of each group. There were 353 participants in one or more of the 19 focus group sessions held.

Team members learned from the focus groups what people in each district are proud of, what their concerns are, what they perceive as the pros and cons of a possible merger, and their general thoughts about the status of the districts and the taxes that support them.

A District Advisory Committee of 24 people, 12 from each district appointed by their respective Board of Education, met for a total of 15 hours over the course of five meetings. In addition, members toured both the Brocton and the Westfield schools, guided by the districts’ architects and superintendents. They reviewed and analyzed vast quantities of data including the financial status of the districts, with and without possible merger aid; past budget vote history; BOCES expenditures; contracts for district personnel; student achievement; graduation rates; course, extra-curricular, and athletic offerings; post-graduation results; enrollment projections for the next 13 years; transportation; and student-teacher ratios.

Committee members held a final meeting on Jan. 16 to respond to questions that were posed concerning student-teacher ratios, the configuration of a newly merged district, issues surrounding transportation, and administrative staffing, and then discussed the impact on the communities if the districts merged. All but one committee member agreed that a merger is essential to ensure students the opportunities needed to succeed in the world outside of school. However, three committee members could not support the merger if the high school were placed outside their own district. All others agreed that placement of a school building is less important than tax savings and improved opportunities for students, which remained paramount in most peoples’ minds.

Notes of each committee meeting and other information about the study can be found on the Westfield Academy website and on the Brocton Central School website For more information, please contact Mr. Davison at 326 2151, or Mr. Hertlein at 792-9121.

Following is some of the data that was presented to the focus groups, considered by the Committee, and by the WNYESC team. Financial Projections were supplied by the business officials in each district, Betty Deland and Alan Holbrook.

Both districts will have to use reserve funds and fund balances to make up the difference between anticipated expenditures and anticipated revenues. These reserves will be depleted by 2016-17 in both districts. While it is possible to raise school taxes over the district’s cap in New York state, that would require a super-majority, 60 percent of those voting, to pass such a budget. In addition, the State Legislature is not expected to provide increases in state aid to meet the spending needs of school districts.

At the same time that expenses are going up, enrollments are in a general decline in New York state, and especially in Northern Chautauqua County. Brocton’s enrollments are expected to decline more rapidly than Westfield’s.

Finally, the demographics of the two communities are remarkably similar. Both communities are experiencing declining populations, have almost the same average family sizes, have similar percentages of households with children under 18, and have similar median incomes.