Spotlight

An Annexation Measured in Student Satisfaction

by RANDY A. EHRENBERG

Shortly after the 2008 annexation of the Maplewood School District by the North Colonie Central School District in upstate New York, I had lunch with 6th-grade students at Maplewood. They were excited about having lunch with their new superintendent.

In answer to my question “What’s going well in your school?” they responded enthusiastically. They liked that the cafeteria now was in their building and they no longer had to walk outdoors to get to lunch. They loved being part of our all-district elementary track meet, and they were delighted we had begun a Maplewood Elementary School band and now had music lessons in school.

Randy EhrenbergRandy Ehrenberg



Similarly, in my lunch meetings with 6th-grade students in our other six elementary schools, I heard their excitement at having a new exploratory foreign language program. I had envisioned this program for several years and, because Maplewood had had an elementary foreign language program prior to the annexation, this helped me to actualize a program for North Colonie students.

The superintendent of Maplewood and I had worked on the annexation project for more than two years, and the positive experiences of all our students was news worth sharing.

Dire Fiscal Reality
For years, the two superintendents had watched the declining financial situation of Maplewood, then a single-school K-8 district with an aging building and 180 students, who came to North Colonie, a suburban district outside Albany, N.Y., for high school. We knew the time would come when Maplewood would face annual double-digit tax increases and would have to reduce its instructional program to moderate its tax-rate increases.

North Colonie, with its 5,650 students, was financially stable but would benefit from an annexation because of the financial incentives that New York state provided for a 14-year period to districts that consolidate operations. These incentives came in the form of both increased operating budget support and an increase in the share of state aid for approved building projects.

We began formal discussions with the Maplewood superintendent and the district’s three-member board of education in 2006. Because the Maplewood School District potentially was going to dissolve and be incorporated into contiguous North Colonie, the discussions were about an annexation, not a merger (the blending of two school districts into one brand new district). We received a $45,000 grant from the New York State Department of State to cover the costs of the process that might lead to a formal annexation recommendation to the voters of both districts.

The key was our emphasis on open and respectful communications and the treatment of the two districts as equals. A feasibility study committee was started comprised of 13 members from each side — even though the two districts differed greatly in size. The committee held six study sessions, open to the public, so questions and concerns could be raised and addressed. When the study concluded, the consultants wrote a report based upon the committee’s recommendations and presented it to both boards and communities.

During the months of study, committee members, both superintendents and school board members learned more about one another’s district and community. North Colonie discovered the importance the Maplewood community placed on keeping its building open as a neighborhood school and their concern that no Maplewood staff members lose jobs if an annexation occurred. In fact, because the pay scales in North Colonie were about 20 percent higher than Maplewood’s, an annexation would lead to increases in salaries for Maplewood teachers and its superintendent, who would remain as the school principal.

We also understood that Maplewood’s three long-time school board members would lose their positions if annexation occurred. Because North Colonie’s nine board members are elected at large, Maplewood could not be promised representation on future North Colonie boards. However, if a North Colonie board member resigned before the end of a term, the board could appoint a replacement to complete the term. Maplewood board members were offered an assurance that, if such a vacancy occurred during the first two years after annexation, one of them would be appointed to fill the position. No such vacancy materialized.

The Maplewood community learned about the breadth of North Colonie’s elementary and junior high school programs and the advantages their 7th and 8th graders would receive if they attended our junior high school. They decided that, if the annexation occurred, Maplewood would become a K-6 elementary school. They also learned about the physical quality of our facilities and our intention to bring Maplewood’s building up to the high standard of our other elementary schools.

Concerns Satisfied
We spent a lot of time meeting, talking and listening. The atmosphere was one of continual mutual respect and trust. By the study’s end, the central concern over annexation had been answered satisfactorily. Instructional opportunities would be expanded for all students, and this would be achieved at comparable or reduced costs to the taxpayers of the two school districts.

Under state regulations, both districts held nonbinding affirmative votes on May 15, 2007, and binding affirmative votes in early 2008. On July 1, 2008, the Maplewood School District, which had been in existence since 1897, was formally annexed by North Colonie. It represented the first annexation or merger of school districts in New York state since 2004.

We are now in our second year of this successful annexation. We will receive additional operating aid of $30 million over 14 years and an increased share of state support for approved capital projects from 48.3 percent to 68 percent as a result of the annexation. This state aid is helping us weather the difficult times all districts now are facing and will be helpful to our district for more than a decade to come.

Randy Ehrenberg is superintendent of the North Colonie Central School District in Latham, N.Y. E-mail: randyae@gmail.com