While the governor and the state Legislature continue to clash over Common Core, teacher evaluations and charter schools, an equally contentious education issue on the agenda this year is the potential mergers of some of the state’s 700 or so school districts.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has pushed for consolidation since entering office, arguing that some districts could benefit academically and financially by merging with other local districts. Just last month the Cuomo administration sent a letter to state education officials identifying a number of potential areas for reform—including merging school districts—which are expected to play prominently in the governor’s State of the State address.
But such mergers are challenging, largely due to fact that residents want to retain local control of their schools, which also provide a sense of community identity.
“It’s a goal that people think is important, but in the end it’s been very difficult to achieve because local people want to have local control of their schools,” said Assemblywoman Cathy Nolan, the chair of the Assembly Education committee. “I’m sure the governor will try to strike that balance, I’m sure the Legislature will try to strike that balance, and I’m sure people will be vocal about their community schools.”
What is clear is that a number of school districts across the state are facing declining enrollment. In his letter to the state Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch and outgoing state Education Commissioner John King, Cuomo’s State Operations Director Jim Malatras notes that many districts are enrolling fewer students and asks how the state can restructure the public education system through mergers, consolidation and regionalization.
State Sen. John Flanagan, the chair of the state Senate Education Committee, acknowledged that local communities often oppose consolidations, but said that dwindling student numbers must be addressed in some way.
“There are a lot of challenges in that effort, a lot of time, a lot of effort, a lot of heartache that goes with it. The whole process of consolidation is cumbersome,” Flanagan said. “When you have enrollment that is declining—and in a lot of areas we do—that’s a cold, hard reality we need to address.”
The state already offers significant incentives in the form of school aid to districts that agree to merge. Schools can receive a 40 percent increase in state aid for the first five years that a newly-merged district is in operation and the extra aid slowly decreases each year afterwards for nine more years.
Despite the prospect of additional school aid, most mergers ultimately fail due to other concerns, such as residents fearing a loss of control or losing a sense of community.
“If the governor or any of the advocates for mergers want to place this on a financial equation they’re not going to be persuasive,” Timothy Kremer, New York State School Boards executive director, said. “If you looked at the cost-benefit analysis it might all make sense on paper for them to merge with another district, but put to a vote those local communities often times vote—mostly vote—them down and it usually an emotional sort of thing where you don’t want to lose your identity.”
There are several steps districts must take to consolidate. First, residents in each district must approve the potential merger in a straw vote. Then the merger would go to a final vote, and it must garner a majority in each individual district. If it fails to pass in one of the districts, the merger cannot go forward.
Advocates for mergers have proposed eliminating the straw vote requirement and simply having one official vote while changing the law so the collective majority of all districts involved in the merger would determine the outcome, instead of a majority in each district.
“That is absolutely going to be a critical part of the discussion,” Flanagan said. “How that vote is structured is monumentally important. If you’re a higher performing school district the reality is you’re not going to want to join up with a lower performing school.”
As an alternative to school district consolidation, Flanagan raised other possibilities that will be discussed this year, such as expanding the existing BOCES model, establishing regional high schools and offering more distance learning.
Since school district mergers so often fail, the governor could also propose mandatory consolidation of school districts whose enrollment is under a certain level.
“I’ve got to believe there would be a huge, huge political pushback, community pushback against forced mergers. People would hate that idea,” Kremer said.
Flanagan said he could see the idea being on the table this year, but added that he did not expect it to pass.
Of course, Cuomo may not shy away from such a controversial education proposal, given his track record during his first term. The governor has had a contentious relationship with the state’s teachers union and has gone as far calling the public school system a “public monopoly” and has criticized the amount of funding that is spend on public education.
“He is, I think, frustrated by the amount of money we spend on public education and what he deems to be mediocre results and I think he’s banking on the fact that people statewide share that point of view. I don’t believe they do,” Kremer said. “When you’re talking about charter schools, mergers, talking about taking on the teachers’ unions and things like that … he’s rolling the dice a bit.”
Increasing the charter schools cap in New York City will likely be debated this year. When referring to the public education system being a “public monopoly,” Cuomo said he would like to bust the monopoly by using charter schools.
Cuomo in December vetoed his own teacher evaluation bill he negotiated in 2014 that would have temporarily removed the Common Core-based student test scores from the evaluation scores of teachers who rated poorly. Cuomo has indicated that he will pursue aggressive reforms to the teacher evaluation system instead.
English Language learners and special-needs students still are struggling with the new Common Core standards and related state tests. The Common Core-related state tests released in August found only 11 percent of ELL students passed math and 3 percent passed the English Language Arts tests. Only 9 percent of special-needs students passed the math test and 5 percent passed the ELA test.
Lawmakers and advocates have said they will continue to push for the elimination of the Gap Elimination Adjustment, a move that would further boost school funding, and fight for fair and equitable school funding for all students.
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