More mergers?

Cutting programs and increasing school taxes for the past decade or so has been across the board for districts in Chautauqua County, and that is something the Fredonia Board of Education wishes to tackle.

The board Tuesday decided it will request through the Freedom of Information Law the high school programs currently provided at all county school districts, as well as enrollment numbers in those programs. Board members hope doing that will expose opportunities for districts across the county to merge struggling programs and sustain them.

“Everyone keeps fighting to maintain what they have, and it’s a losing battle,” Fredonia School District Superintendent Paul DiFonzo said. “Every district in the county has dropped significantly in enrollment. It’s a reality, so it’s time for us to really look and see … what we have to do across the county to have students get the programming they need.”

That, by extension, may mean opening the door to redrawing district lines, or even a regional high school.

“That may sound drastic, and people don’t want to hear it, but how long are we going to continue to allow districts to dwindle down in numbers and programs?” DiFonzo questioned. “For some, this might be a touchy subject. There needs to be more sharing, and sometimes maybe the drastic centralization or consolidation … needs to occur.”

“I’m really viewing this as being something for our district as really important and, frankly, for every other district in the county,” Board President Michael Bobseine stated. “This is important information for people to have so we can help educate our community in terms of what our district provides … and it should be relative to allowing us to make a stronger argument that if you’re serious about offering a high level of education, we need to look into more mergers.”

Board member Karen Mosier said she believes Fredonia should take charge of this matter instead of handing it off to another entity, so the district is not waiting on the information to be released.

“I could almost see this being used to present to (state) legislators, saying, ‘Chautauqua County needs help,'” Mosier added. “Looking at the changes in our district, I look at what Fredonia offered 10 years ago compared to today and I’m saddened by the changes. It really is a harsh reality.”

“I think that information needs to be FOILed for, and not just have a survey sent out for the districts to return,” board member Edith Byrne said. “I don’t think you’re going to get a real answer from a survey.”

After a recommendation from the board, DiFonzo said he will discuss Fredonia’s intentions with Chautauqua County School Boards Association Executive Director Ray Fashano and BOCES District Superintendent David O’Rourke. He will report back to the board at its next meeting March 11.

“I think it’s important to understand the reduction in our state aid has impacted us drastically, and we’ve tried to be creative, but we’ve run out of ideas,” DiFonzo said, referencing two failed mergers and a continuation of open arms to shared services. “I think you have to look at the current state of school districts in our county, and you have to wonder, is every student in this county receiving an equitable program when they go to school? When you look at the tinier schools, you can see they’re being forced to combine sports programs just to keep them intact.”

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