BREAKING NEWS

BREAKING NEWS

Looming decision

There have been newsletters, discussions and meetings on the matter, and now the statutory merger vote for Brocton Central School and Westfield Academy and Central School is three days away.

The process began when both education boards authorized a centralization feasibility study in 2012 using focus groups, interviews and data to predict if a merger would be beneficial.

THE STUDY

The Western New York Education Service Council conducted the study. The two education boards appointed an advisory committee to work with the council and authorized district employees to provide data. The study was released in March.

Overall, it concluded a merger would benefit the two communities.

“Both districts are faced with declining revenues (state aid and more limited ability to increase local taxes),” it stated. “There has been ongoing reduction in student programs and opportunities (and) expectations for graduates have never been higher. Continuous program reductions will only lead to inadequate school systems that fail to prepare students for their future.”

The study said both communities face population and student enrollment declines. Westfield lost 84 students in its enrollment while Brocton lost 100 students since the 2007-08 school year.

“Prospects for the improvement in the revenue picture are dim unless the districts merge and take advantage of operating incentive aid,” the study stated.

Other recommendations included: renegotiating contracts instead of leveling them up; keeping both bus garages during the initial configuration; creating a new transportation policy; reducing administrative staff (treasurer, clerk, superintendent, principals, etc.); adding a K-12 assistant principal, a part-time curriculum coordinator (both for the transition to the Common Core Curriculum) and a director of pupil services (for special education); hiring a single technology director with two technicians; and gradually cutting a transportation supervisor, cafeteria manager, head custodian and psychiatrist, as well as other redundant positions (clerical, mechanics, teachers, etc.).

The study also recommended reviewing the secondary program to ensure it meets state expectations. This would include the reinstatement of lost electives, including the agriculture program, so long as there are at least eight students to enroll in them. Advanced Placement and college-level course offerings should also be increased and more programs and extra-curriculars would be available to more students.

“It’s important to recognize that all of this, the efficiencies and budget, would ultimately be determined by the new board,” Erie 2 BOCES Superintendent David O’Rourke said. “That’s an important caution all of us have to have.”

Initially, phasing out portions of the school district leading up to a single building to house all students was a recommendation, in an effort to maximize savings. In other words, Westfield’s middle and high school would immediately be shut down and Brocton’s elementary school would be phased out over three years, leading to one facility (or both if a new building was constructed) shutting down entirely.

Both education boards found this unacceptable.

“(The boards) met together and claimed they both wanted their own community elementary schools,” Brocton Superintendent John Hertlein said. “They said they do not want to close either one of the districts.”

The new recommended configuration, adopted in May as an addendum to the original study, will see both elementary schools continue, at least initially. Westfield’s high school and Brocton’s middle school would shut down. This new configuration could result in $68,755 per year in additional savings, but there would have to be several more staff cuts and slightly increased class sizes than recommended in the initial study to compensate for the use of both facilities. Otherwise, it will cost an additional $200,000 per year to maintain both.

THE FINANCES

Westfield Business Manager Alan Holbrook said that without a merger, Westfield would become fiscally insolvent in the 2018-19 school year. Brocton would have even less time until insolvency without the merger, according to the study.

Centralization will direct $25 million in operating incentive aid toward Brocton and Westfield over a period of 14 years.

“That is the additional money that we will get on top of New York state aid already,” Hertlein said.

For the first five years, $2.6 million will be disbursed annually. That will decrease by 4 percent for each remaining year afterward. Forty percent will be used to reduce taxes, 35 percent will go toward educational programs and 25 percent will be put into reserve funds, including one to cover the local share of building projects.

Combining both budgets without any consolidation and factoring in the aid, the full-value tax rate of the new district would be $17.26 for the 2014-15 school year.

“Westfield’s savings would not be quite as much as it would be to Brocton, because more than 54 percent of Brocton’s assessed value is tax exempt. So, Westfield’s assessed value is considerably more than Brocton’s. They will see a savings, though,” Brocton Business Executive Betty DeLand said.

Using actual tax rates from the 2012-13 school year and including the aid, Pomfret would save $26.35 per $1,000 of assessed value, Stockton would save $5.33, Portland would save $9.88 for the portion in Brocton’s school district and $.19 for the portion in Westfield’s, Ripley would save $.10 and the town of Westfield would save $.12. This is considering current equalization rates.

“Those figures are with no efficiencies. That’s if we ran both schools exactly as we ran them now and did absolutely nothing. That’s not the plan, so there would be more savings if we realize some efficiency,” Westfield Education Board member Marie Edwards said.

Each district brings debt to the centralization, Brocton moreso than Westfield. The centralized district would benefit from Brocton’s facilities aid ratio of 97.9 percent for at least 10 years, which increases the 90.6 percent on the existing Westfield debt service. The debt service of both districts would have no negative impact on local taxes.

“That would just help and benefit any new project we do,” DeLand said.

Although Brocton has $25 million more in debt than Westfield, building aid will dwindle that amount down over time.

“We’re going to be getting a whole bunch more state aid and we’re not going to have payments (on a capital project),” DeLand said. “Westfield’s already at that point where they’re receiving more aid than they’re paying out in their debt service and Brocton will be in that similar situation in six years. So, between merger incentive money and savings on the debt service, we’re getting more aid than we’re dishing out.”

THE VOTE

A non-binding referendum vote to reorganize the schools occurred in June. In Brocton, 545 votes were cast, with 468 in favor of merging. In Westfield, 676 votes were cast, with 508 in favor. Since this straw vote passed in both districts, the State Education Department commissioner ordered a binding referendum for Wednesday.

If the merger passes, an election for new board members would occur in December. The new board would begin work on a budget and the creation of any reserve funds for voter approval. It would use the study as a guide for establishing policies. The new district of 77.7 square miles would become operational on July 1, with an estimated enrollment of 1,231 students.

Eligible voters must be U.S. citizens, at least 18 years old and residents of either the Brocton or Westfield school districts at least 30 days prior to Wednesday. Brocton residents will vote in Brocton School’s gym lobby and Westfield residents will vote in Westfield School’s main lobby between noon and 8 p.m.

Voters will be faced with three propositions. The first will ask if the two districts should merge into the Brocton-Westfield Central School District. A majority of voters from both districts must be in favor of it in order for it to pass.

The second question will ask if five, seven or nine people should be on the new education board if the merger passes. The third question will ask if the board members’ terms should be three, four or five years. Results will be determined by plurality.

Voters requiring an absentee ballot have until Wednesday to submit an application. To apply, contact the proper district clerk at 792-2173 (Brocton) or 326-2151 (Westfield). Absentee ballots must be handed in by 5 p.m. on Wednesday.

“I’m not allowed to sell the merger, but I really hope that the seven public meetings we’ve had that were factual in nature and based upon the study would give voters the right information to make an informed decision,” Hertlein said. “And I hope they do take the time to vote. We have had close relationships with Westfield throughout this process, and regardless of what happens, those relations will continue.”

After voting closes, Brocton’s votes will be sealed and taken to Westfield, the main polling site. A board of canvass composed of citizens from both districts will then tally the votes.

“This vote is the result of hundreds of hours of study, dialogue and work from stakeholders in both communities,” Westfield Superintendent David Davison said. “I am grateful for everyone’s commitment and investment in this decision and their willingness to help shape the future of education for our children. I encourage everyone to cast their ballots and let their voice count. A lot of work lies ahead, either as a centralized or standalone district.”

To view additional information on the merger vote, including the feasibility study itself, go to www.wacs.wnyric.org or www.broctoncsd.org.

Comments on this article may be sent to gfox@observertoday.com