Westfield focus groups: no huge support for merger revote
WESTFIELD – Following on the heels of negative findings through a community survey for a potential revote on a merger between Brocton and Westfield schools, focus groups out of Westfield had mixed opinions on if a revote should take place after Oct. 10, indicating a lack of concrete support.
SUNY Fredonia Educational Leadership Program co-coordinator Dr. Janeil Rey presented her conclusions on over five hours of interviews with the focus groups during Monday’s board of education meeting.
She explained she had asked residents how they felt about their school and where they would like to see the district’s future going.
“On the question of revisiting the merger, there were people saying, ‘Absolutely not,’ saying, ‘Sure. Why wouldn’t you?’ and there were a lot of people in between,” Rey explained.
“I don’t think that’s a big push to pursue a revote. Whatever side they declared themselves on, if they were for it or against it, everyone said that they felt even if this merger had gone through, they weren’t convinced that it would have solved the challenges the district is facing.
“(They agreed) that it would have almost – and this is my metaphor, not theirs – kicked the can down the road, and in a few years, be facing the same questions again, and possibly another merger. They thought, looking at reorganization, that the view had to be bigger than one district, looking at multiple districts either along the lake or involving Chautauqua Lake.”
Rey met with about 30 people spanning five focus groups: two teacher groups, two parent and community member groups and one high school student group. She also interviewed four individuals who were not involved with the focus groups: two principals, the business administrator and another parent.
Three common themes emerged from focus group discussions: the support for a quality education in Westfield is there; the community recognizes the financial challenges facing the district; and there is a desire for the district to return to its “glory days” of the past, when more opportunities were perceived to be available.
“People are committed to this district and there’s a lot of trust in the administration and accolades for the faculty,” Rey said. “There is also an overwhelming feeling that this is a district that does a lot with a little. That’s a good place to be with a community that is united in its support for the district.”
Rey added interviewees repeatedly mentioned a shrinking tax base and increasing demands from the state Department of Education contributed to Westfield’s fiscal problems. Many people also believed Westfield had “turned a corner” with a revitalization of the downtown area.
“I think there is an understanding that a lot of things the school is paying for is out of the board’s hands; there are mandates that come that are expensive and have to be accommodated,” Rey noted. “I think it’s critical to the community that they look to you (the board) to create that vision for a future and bring them to that future.”
Rey stressed that the board should continue to look into shared services and possibly future considerations for mergers – just not the merger with Brocton that currently lies on the table.
Board President Steven Cockram asked Rey why focus group participants voted they way they did during the merger vote last October. Rey replied the question was never asked, but those opposed to the merger indicated “this was not the right merger at the right time.”
“I heard from those opposed to the merger a distrust in the study, and in particular, I repeatedly heard about a particular passage in the study that I think when people read that, they just felt, ‘Well, these people don’t know my community,’ making them distrustful of the whole study,” she said, noting the passage asserted Brocton’s downtown was more vibrant than Westfield’s downtown. “That was people’s perception. Secondly, I think the next thing was the (merged) high school (being) in Brocton.”
After Rey’s presentation, the board decided the subject of Westfield’s future direction would be brought up at the next meeting after board members have had time to reflect on the information.
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 in favor of consolidation for it to become a reality.
A revote is possible if the board chooses to pursue it after Oct. 10.
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