Visit to merged school solidifies conviction

Paul Buehler

ELIZABETHTOWN — Chautauqua Lake Central School District is the product of a consolidation.

About 20 years ago, it merged with Mayville Central; they built a new school facility 15 or so years ago.

“They started from scratch and have an impressive facility,” Paul Buehler said after a visit there before the end of the school year.

“There are separate wings for the high and elementary schools with separate schedules.”

Buehler, who serves on the Elizabethtown-Lewis/Westport Central Merger Advisory Committee and is a physical education teacher at ELCS, parent and taxpayer, used personal days and paid his own way to take a look at a merged district of about the same size as ELCS and Westport as they consider consolidation.

“A lot of what we have been discussing is theoretical, and I thought it was important to hear from people who have gone through it and find out if they are satisfied,” he said.

LEAD THE WAY

Buehler was impressed by the course offerings at Chautauqua Lake Central, which included pre-engineering.

And he liked the district’s involvement with the Project Lead the Way program that allows for a hands-on classroom environment that empowers students to develop in-demand knowledge and skills.

There is also a manufacturing program in which students utilize computer technology that they couple with cutting and shaping metals.

Buehler was also impressed by the greenhouse there.

DID IT LAST?

Chautauqua Lake Central is located in Chautauqua County in the southwestern part of New York state on the Pennsylvania border.

It has 794 students, of which 100 are from other districts and pay tuition.

If ELCS and Westport were to merge, the student population would be around 470.

“My purpose for going was not to see how great they are, but did the financial arrangement really come through, and did it last after the initial 15 years,” Buehler said.

“They are still receiving funding benefits 20 years after the merger. In total, $80 million has been received. It isn’t foolproof, and you have to manage responsibly.

“I would have faith in our new board of education that they would do the right things,” he added.

MERGER STUDIES

The school boards of Westport Central and ELCS independently authorized pre-merger studies in August 2016. A favorable report that December prompted further study that was launched in May 2017.

That’s when the Merger Advisory Committee, with members from both districts, was formed. Last May, at its seventh session, consultants Castallo and Silky of Syracuse presented an overview of their findings.

Among them were:

• Both schools are fiscally similar in fund balances, property wealth per student, tax levy, capital debt and final payments. Leveling up teacher salaries would cost $185,000.

• Administration savings with a merger would be $220,000. Total net savings with clerical, etc. would be $256,000.

• Incentive operating aid would generate $6,249,465 over 15 years.

• Potential efficiency in a merged district could save more than $43,000 annually.

• If merged, more than 90 percent of costs for more than $1 million in work at the school buildings, a solution for two badly deteriorated bus garages and inadequate outdoor athletic facilities would be covered by state funding.

• A new school building, if built, would cost about $50 million, with more than 90 percent covered by state aid in a merger situation.

• Both schools received positive external audit reports.

‘NO NEGATIVES’

While at Chautauqua, Buehler met with School Board President Jay Baker, who was on the board when the merger took place.

Baker told him the curriculum expanded by 40 percent.

And students find a career path sooner and mature earlier if more is offered, he told Buehler.

“Personally, seeing a school of this caliber did sting a little,” Buehler said. “I know we do a terrific job at ELCS, but if we had the funding we could do so much more.

“(Now) our schedule is rigid.”

Buhler deliberately looked for some negative aspects of the Chautauqua merger.

“I was on the search for it, but found nothing,” he said.

“There is no logical reason to say no to our merger,” the ELCS teacher added. “If you look at the fiscal responsibility, our taxes go up and we have to cut positions.

“I don’t see any other solution. In 15 years after a merger, the situation will not be what it is today. The past 15 years have got us into what we have now.”

Email Alvin Reiner:

rondackrambler@gmail.com

MERGER MOVES TOWARD VOTES

The timetable for the possible merger of ELCS and Westport Central has each board hosting information sessions in August and early September.

Then the boards will vote separately in mid September on whether to advance the process to public voting.

If either votes no, the process ends.

If they both give the OK, a preliminary advisory referendum would be held by each district with the public casting ballots.

The process would end there if either district were to vote against merger.

If that vote is yes from both districts, final public referendums would take place in December.

Again, if either is against consolidation, the proposal would be put to bed.

Learn more at elcsd.org or westportcs.org or stop in at either of the district’s main offices.

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