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Sidebar                                                Pages 22-23

 

Twenty Years in the Making,

Two Districts Marry    

 

BY COSIMO TANGORRA, JR.

 Tangorra
Cosimo Tangorra is superintendent of the Central Valley School District in Ilion, N.Y., which came into being last summer upon the merger of two school systems. He is shown with Student Services Director Lisa Hoffman.
After a fire destroyed the Mohawk Central School District’s junior/senior high school in October 1994, the Ilion Central School District opened its doors to Mohawk’s students during the rebuilding process. For the final eight months of the school year, the two districts educated their students in a shared space via split sessions.

As a result of that experience, Ilion and Mohawk, two small school systems situated midway between Syracuse and Albany, N.Y., engaged in a yearlong reorganization study. The proposed consolidation came to a quick end when residents of Mohawk voted down a referendum that Ilion residents simultaneously approved.

Over the ensuing 10 years, the two districts followed similar paths, forced to make sharp reductions in programs as student enrollment and revenues declined. In 2008, the districts investigated anew how they could jointly expand academic, athletic and artistic offerings for their students. After nearly a year of deliberation, the two school boards agreed to enter into a school district reorganization study. The purpose was to explore whether a merged district would be more efficient at delivering programs and services to students.

Twosome or Foursome?
Early in the study, two neighboring school districts, Herkimer and Frankfort-Schuyler, approached Ilion and Mohawk, asking them to suspend their study and to consider them in a potential four-district reorganization. The districts shared common values and tax rates and would have combined into a relatively small district of 4,600 students within fewer than 120 square miles.

The notion of a four-district consolidation in the Mohawk Valley region was not a novel idea. In 1991, Paul Preuss, then the assistant superintendent with the local Board of Cooperative Educational Services, raised the possibilities of such a reorganization in an essay he prepared for the county’s superintendents.

The study indicated a reorganization of the four districts would lead to additional AP courses and electives, improved academic intervention, and restoration of some programs eliminated in the preceding years. It also would enable the new district to operate much more efficiently. The boards of education then called for an advisory referendum to determine whether community support existed for reorganization in each district. The residents of the Frankfort-Schuyler district voted the measure down. The other districts revamped the study, which continued to identify benefits to students and taxpayers in the three remaining communities. Voters in the three districts approved the advisory referendum, but the residents of Herkimer defeated the measure at the statutory referendum.

(In New York, evidence of public support for reorganization is required before the commissioner of education will call for a binding referendum. The use of an advisory referendum is the most common method employed to demonstrate community support. If the advisory referendum is approved by all communities, the commissioner will call for a statutory referendum. Approval of the statutory referendum is binding.)

A final study concluded a reorganization of Ilion and Mohawk would benefit both districts, though not to the same extent as a three- or four-district consolidation. In spring 2013, the residents of Ilion and Mohawk approved the consolidation of their schools, by more than two-to-one margins in both places, leading to the formation of the Central Valley School District. This came about four years after the two began formal talks and almost 20 years since the two districts shared classroom space in the aftermath of crisis.

Mixed Outcomes
The creation of the Central Valley district, with its 2,380 students housed at four sites, has resulted in expanded opportunities for students. They have an array of electives previously unavailable, including multiple AP courses. A business education program was restored, and an elementary orchestra was launched. Central Valley now can offer full varsity, junior varsity and modified teams in every sport. Additionally, the district has enhanced counseling services for students, including social work, guidance and career counseling.

However, the economies of scale that a merger of three or four districts would have yielded did not come to fruition. A three-district merger would have yielded a reduction of 14 faculty members. The two-district merger did not allow for any staff reductions.

While stakeholders in both Ilion and Mohawk can see tangible benefits already from the reorganization, the process of getting to this point was fraught with public concerns about loss of identity and local control. Opponents had claimed the new district would result in an oversize school operation that would disenfranchise students. Others raised the decibel level by questioning who would be the starting quarterback on the varsity football team, which school’s senior would be honored as the class valedictorian and who would command the lead role in the annual musical.

Equally troublesome to reorganization opponents were the matters of determining a new district mascot and school colors and who would be elected to the new seven-member board of education. These concerns trumped any benefit to taxpayers and the academic program.

Proponents of the consolidation remained solidly focused on increasing opportunities for children and leveling the tax rate. Notably, many of those opposed have been impressed with the opportunities now available to students, while proponents are disappointed there are not more.

At times the debate turned ugly, with each side casting aspersions on the other. As Ilion’s superintendent, I was accused of supporting reorganization out of a desire to become superintendent of the bigger district. Of course, these claims ignored the fact that the newly constituted school board had the sole authority to choose whomever it wanted to run the new district.

True Purpose
From the outset, our reorganization had nothing to do with saving money. In fact, plenty of research proves mergers do not lead to cost savings. The purpose was to combine our limited resources in an effort to provide a better education to our children and to become a more efficient organization.

Last April, the board appointed me superintendent and unanimously adopted a $44.1 million budget for the Central Valley district’s inaugural year. That budget, subsequently ratified by voters, represented 2.9 percent more in proposed spending than the combined districts, bringing all Central Valley students opportunities they did not have one year earlier.

Cosimo Tangorra is superintendent of the Central Valley School District in Ilion, N.Y. E-mail: ctangorra@cvalleycsd.org. Twitter: @CValleyCSD  

 

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