Is silence golden for merger?

BROCTON – With about 45 people in attendance, the fourth and final public hearing regarding the proposed Westfield Academy Central School and Brocton Central School merger took place in the auditorium here on May 16.

There was no emotion from the audience. No nastiness, cheering or booing and only two questions posed. It was over in less than 30 minutes.

It was a stark contrast to the atmosphere of November 2009, when Brocton hosted a hearing regarding a potential merger with Fredonia Central Schools. Opposition to the plan, as well as support, was evident at that standing-room only meeting where community members were limited to three minutes of time to address the boards or ask questions. Outside,”Save BCS. No Merger” signs dotted lawns and windows from Portland to Dunkirk.

This time, there was none of that. You could even make the case that there is a great deal of disinterest in the process.

Last week, after both school budgets were approved by residents, the Boards of Education gave the go-ahead for a straw vote on the merger proposal for June 18. Voters in both communities must favor going ahead with plans before a second vote on the merger is scheduled. If one community votes “no,” the process stops.

That result would be unfortunate because there is one thing that has not been evident through this process of hearings and group sessions that led to the extensive feasibility study: outright resistance for the collaboration from either community.

Currently, both districts – like many others across the county – are doing just enough to keep their heads above water. But in keeping finances stable, programs and educational opportunities for students are being reduced.

Brocton has taken a much larger hit, especially publicly, over the last five years than Westfield when dealing with its budgets. It has lost a number of extracurricular and sporting programs while a number of positions have been eliminated.

In the meantime, the cost for education has increased for the taxpayers in both districts, meaning they are paying more for less.

A merged district, however, would lower the tax rates while likely boosting property values for our economically challenged area. According to the study, which was released in March, merger incentive aid would reduce tax rates in both the Westfield and Brocton districts over the next five years. In Brocton, the rate would decrease from the current $23.15 per $1,000 of assessed valuation to $20.21 in 2017-18. For Westfield, the rate decreases from the current $17.92 to $17.17.

Lower taxing rates – unlike economic gimmicks that New York state and our region have tried for years – are what boost private investment in communities in this nation. As investment increases, property values and appearances improve for a community while boosting populations.

This, of course, is much different than our current Western New York trend of high taxes and the numerous school districts that have suffocated many, while others became fed up and moved away.

One other positive from the merger is the increased educational opportunities that will exist for students. In a series of letters to the editor in The Westfield Republican, Westfield school board member Steve Cockram has consistently noted the present system in New York state is unsustainable and hurting our future generation.

“The fundamental question that voters will be asked is if they feel a combined district has a better chance of giving students the best education possible,” he wrote on April 24. “The other question is if there are enough dedicated community members to be on the new board – you? – to make the tough decisions that are in the best interests of the students? If your gut says ‘yes’ or even ‘yes, but,’ then you should vote for the merger.”

John D’Agostino is the OBSERVER publisher. Send comments to jdagostino@observertoday.com or call 366-3000, ext. 401.