Why this match makes sense

By STEVE COCKRAM

I urge you to support the Westfield-Brocton merger and vote for it Tuesday at your respective school.

As you review the situation, ask yourself if our children’s and grandchildren’s educations would be improved if Westfield and Brocton are separate or together. Ask if stabilizing tax rates and educational opportunity for 10 years is a plus.

Ask how big the community is that you live in. Here are the reasons that I support the merger:

Background demographics: Our schools have been changing right under our noses. Local schools are losing about 1 percent population per year. While this doesn’t seem significant, WACS had 1,100 students in 1993. Next year we will be in the low 700s. The combined district would soon have about 1,200 students.As populations shrink, the facilities and administrative overhead associated with running a school remains constant, leading to higher per student costs.

School revenue is flat: School revenues come from all 18 million state residents and from local taxpayers. After the 2008 fiscal meltdown, the state balanced its budget with the Gap Elimination Adjustment. This meant the state had a gap in its budget and eliminated it by adjusting the funding levels to local schools and governments. Both WACS and Brocton were suddenly asked to run the same school with a million dollars a year less revenue. Add the tax cap law, which limits any increase in the local tax. Across the state this year, voters rejected 75 percent of the school budgets that were over the cap amount. Revenues won’t increase significantly in the near future.

School expenses continue to rise: Student education is a labor intensive process. About 70 percent of a school’s expenses are personnel related. Society has not been able to contain health care expenses. School employees are part of the state retirement systems, and despite new Tiers, these costs are going up much faster than tax cap rates. Generous contracts made when state funding was just as generous cannot be legally discarded. All schools’ financial models have expenses rising faster than revenue.

A broken economic model: School revenues are flat (after dropping by a million) and expenses continue to rise. This is a structural deficit.

If not addressed it will lead to long term financial and educational disaster. Schools must have a balanced budget each year. Schools have addressed deficits by picking an amount of savings (dedicated to other purposes) to help plug the gap, then reviewing non-mandatory classes, and cutting programs that will be least disruptive to the students’ overall learning experience.

If a structural deficit continues until the savings runs out, then really bad things can happen. Unlike private industry, schools cannot legally declare bankruptcy. With no savings, classes and programs are dropped.

Cutting may go until a school can’t provide a day’s classes or even the mandated minimum courses. An academically bankrupt school can’t provide the classes to make students ready for career or college. Brocton and Westfield are both only a couple years from using up our savings.

Loss of student educational opportunity: We as parents and school leaders are asked to prepare our children to be ready for college and career. In an ever more interconnected world, our students need to have ever broader experiences. Our shrinking student population is small enough that we cannot afford to have classes for a handful of students – this is why WACS cut French. Couple this with the structural deficit, Brocton and Westfield had to cut our kids’ courses by 22 teaching and 10 support positions between 2010-13. This will double without merger incentive aid, and our students’ educational opportunities will fade away.

Financial benefits: There are three financial benefits. First is a reduction in duplication of administration. Merger committee members found about $500,000 per year savings by having an administration do the same job for a larger number of students. Secondly, with more students, the student-teacher ratio can be optimized more easily, giving another similar savings. These are still not enough to cover the structural deficit caused by reduced state aid, the tax cap, and rapidly increasing labor costs. The third benefit is state incentive aid. Our merger consultants did us a disservice when they said that 40 percent of aid should go towards tax relief. They really meant 40 percent of the aid was to fill the structural deficit and reduce Brocton’s higher tax rate down to where Westfield’s has been for years. Then 25 percent goes into savings to stabilize finances in years five-plus as the incentive aid runs wanes.

Merger educational benefits: Our consultants recommended 35 percent of the incentive aid should improve the education in our combined district. Quite simply, use the funds to bring back options like a second foreign language, agriculture, sports, clubs, etc. I think adding driver ed would be neat.

WHERE IS THE HIGH SCHOOL GOING TO BE? At least we are not in a tizzy about sports teams because many of them have already successfully combined. In the long term there will only be enough students to fill one building, regardless if we are one district or two. The one building scenario does save us taxpayers the most money. I believe this question won’t have to be answered yet because the new district will continue to evolve. We need to become an even larger community, and we will be financially stronger and have better educational opportunities for our students.

Role of school boards and voters: The new district’s path will be determined by the new school board, which will be guided by active taxpayers electing board members and talking to them. To anonymous bloggers who say a $30 per year tax saving is not enough, it is your responsibility to become a real person and tell your Board of Education your opinions. A merger calls for voters/ taxpayers to take an active role in their schools.

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.

The merger process doesn’t make guarantees. Rather, the 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 Tuesday at your local school.

Steve Cockram, Westfield parent, taxpayer, and school board member, notes the views presented are his own and not of the school board.