Why mergers fail

Why did a statutory merger vote between Brocton Central School and Westfield Academy and Central School last October ultimately fail? A recently released report by the New York State Association of School Business Officials may shed light on that question.

Following on the heels of Westfield’s creation of a survey on the district’s future, including a possible merger revote, the report focused on 30 school districts out of about 700 statewide; those 30 studied the viability of reorganization as early as 2010, including Brocton/Westfield.

Of 15 district pairs, four had a board of education that decided not to take reorganization to a public vote after studying it; seven had the process stop after a failed straw vote to gauge public interest; and four, including Brocton/Westfield, approved reorganization in a straw vote, but failed to pass it in a binding referendum.

“While school district mergers may generate some savings for districts of less than 1,500 students, the chief benefit is student access to a wider array of educational opportunities that would not be available at a smaller district,” NYSASBO Executive Director Michael Borges stated in a news release.

The report lists the following as obstacles to district reorganization, according to the state Education Department: A fear of losing local identity; perception that the communities are incompatible and that one may benefit more than the other; higher costs and increase in property tax; more time required for transportation; job security for employees; and natural tendency to resist change.

“I don’t know if all six of those played into our failed merger, but I’ve been told a reason why the merger wasn’t so popular in Westfield is that they did not get a substantial tax decrease,” Brocton Superintendent John Hertlein said. “I’ve also heard economic identity played a part; the people in Westfield felt that if they didn’t have a high school, then people would not go down into the community for the activities that took place, and then stop at McDonald’s or stop at the drug store on the way home.”

Those inklings may be right, as one Westfield voter told the OBSERVER he had a problem with how much more Brocton would have benefited than Westfield.

“I voted ‘no’ on the merger question because of the financial situation of Brocton versus Westfield,” LeRoy Foster of Westfield said in an email a month after the failed vote. “Westfield is in the black, whereas Brocton is in the red ($32 million hanging over their heads). Brocton was going to use the merger incentive money to correct its situation. In essence, they would benefit greatly (from a merger), whereas Westfield would not.”

Foster added other factors also swayed his vote, including busing between Brocton and Westfield with “heavy snow issues and Route 20 becoming even more congested with irate truckers and drivers.” He also said any incentives for merging should benefit each district equally, instead of one district gaining more over the other.

Hertlein said he understands where voters like Foster are coming from.

“It’s just common sense we’d like to be treated equally,” he explained. “Districts who have low tax rates versus districts like ours with a higher tax rate, when there is a merger, it’s usually the district with the higher rate that stands to benefit more in most cases. I’ve actually seen one merger where a district’s rate went up, and no one’s going to support that, obviously.”

The superintendent added Brocton’s debt would actually benefit Westfield if a merger took place, countering what Foster said.

“Our debt service might be high, but we also have a large reimbursement, so we actually make money on our debt. We’re actually making a million dollars on it,” he explained. “Westfield would have been able to capitalize on that because their debt percentage would increase to Brocton’s level of 98 percent, and their building aid would’ve increased to 98 percent, too.”

Contained in the recently passed state budget was a law allowing districts interested in merging to defer any disparate tax rate impact for a one-year period, or have that impact phased in over 10 years at most, softening a change to taxes in a merged district.

To take advantage of this, a resolution must be adopted after a public hearing by all boards of education interested in merging at least 45 days before the reorganizational vote.

Borges called the law a “common-sense change to the consolidation process” in the NYSASBO report.

“This new law does seem to shed light on the concern that both districts are not treated equally after a merger,” Hertlein said. “This legislation that makes the tax relief a little bit more equitable has to be a positive thing for any future mergers.”

The OBSERVER reached out to Westfield Superintendent David Davison for his thoughts on the study and the new law, but he declined since a revote is still possible. He added he did not wish to compromise the integrity and the data-gathering process for the Westfield survey, which has a question asking district residents why they voted down the merger.

Brocton overwhelmingly supported merging with Westfield 643 votes to 74, but Westfield rejected the merger by about 200 votes, 718 to 507. Both communities needed a majority for consolidation to become reality.

A revote is possible if the Westfield Board of Education chooses to pursue it by Oct. 10. Brocton would not have to participate since the district already approved the merger.

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