WESTPORT — The work has begun to investigate whether Westport and Elizabethtown-Lewis schools districts should merge.
At its first meeting, held at Westport Central, the Merger Study Advisory Committee got some insight on the job ahead and took a look at enrollment figures.
LIKE A MARRIAGE
In considering a merger, said Alan Pole of the consulting firm Castallo & Silky of Syracuse, it's rather like looking at “a marriage.
"What does each side bring? What are the liabilities? You need a common understanding. It is a good idea, but what will it look like?”
Among the benefits listed for consolidation by Pole were:
• Increased course offerings.
• Upgrading facilities and equipment.
• Cost effectiveness in administration, facilities, equipment and staff.
• Consolidate and coordinate support functions.
• Reduce taxes.
Factors given that may impede reorganization include:
• Fear of losing identity.
• Perception the communities are incompatible.
• Uncertainty over board representation.
• Increased busing times.
• Employee job-security fears.
• A natural resistance to change.
A WINDOW VIEW
The 20-member Merger Study Committee is comprised of 10 participants from each school, including an administrator, high school student, two teachers, a support staff member and five community members.
Since members of the two school boards will be voting on the findings, they are not part of the committee.
The Study Committee's purpose, said Westport Central Interim Superintendent A. Paul Scott, is to inform the committee and public as to “what we are, where we are, and (to give) a window view of what the other school’s community is about.”
“There are no expectations for you to push for it or against a merger," Pole told the committee.
"You are here to get a real good study done.
"It’s possible that some of you will agree and some will not. We want you to help us with the cultural concepts of each community.
"We will try to not be influenced by any groups.”
The main purposes of the merger study are twofold, Pole explained.
One is to paint a clear picture of each district so its neighbor has a good understanding of the assets and liabilities it would bring to a merger.
The other is to develop a series of recommendations that would be provided to the new school board to consider on district organization, facilities, staffing, finances, transportation and educational programming.
“We will not recommend whether or not a merger should occur," Pole said.
"A report will be written so anybody can understand it. No one can say we have done this under the cover of darkness.”
An audience of about 20 attended the recent committee session.
Bill Silky, also of Castallo & Silky, delivered the second half of the presentation, which revolved around past, present and future enrollment and possible trends.
Charts listing specific information are available on the schools’ websites, showing there was a measurable decrease in enrollment from 2011 to 2016 at ELCS, while Westport's numbers remained fairly constant.
However, that might change, it appears, as the current kindergarten and first-grade classes at ELCS have shown a marked increase in students.
It was also pointed out that Westport averages around 40 non-resident students, while ELCS has three.
Part of this is due to Westport allowing employees' children to attend. And several Moriah students have been incorporated into the district due to busing logistics.
ONLY ABOUT 10%
Based on his experience, Silky said, school districts tend not to want to consolidate.
“About 10 percent actually merge after this process," he said.
One issue, he said, is "there is no way of knowing the emotion of communities.”
Silky has produced studies on merging for 28 districts — only a few voted to do so.
Crown Point and Ticonderoga, he noted, decided to remain separate.
"Everything a district does depends on the number of students that are enrolled,” Silky said.
Here's the timeline for possible consolidation: May, 2018, study completed; June 2018, study reviewed by State Education Department; August 2018, study presented to the two school boards; September 2018, public information and discussion; and October 2018, both boards vote.
If they decide to go forward: November 2018, advisory referendum; January 2019, final referendum; April 2019, vote for new board members; May 2019, budget vote; and July 1, 2019, new district begins operation.
In order for consolidation to take place, public referendums must pass in each district.
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