Mohawk Valley school districts consider merger

Oct 17, 2012

With dropping enrollments and less money coming from the state, many school districts across New York are looking into joining forces. That is the case in the Mohawk Valley near Utica, where a school merger is on the ballot this week.

On most weekends for nearly a century, cheers have been heard in Herkimer -- a small town of about 8,000 where the high school football team has been a source of pride for the community. But this might be the last year for the Herkimer Magicians .  On Thursday, voters in Herkimer and its neighboring communities and long time sports rivals -- Mohawk and Ilion -- will decide whether to combine the three small school districts into one.

That idea has sparked a passionate debate in these Mohawk Valley towns. Joan Godlewski has lived in Herkimer all her life and is raising her children here.

"I’m completely for the merger. I think it’s a great opportunity for the kids and I would be afraid to see what would happen if we don’t merge," said Godlewski.

But opponents are nervous about such a drastic change. Dan Dowling of Ilion says there will be no turning back. "If this fails we’re stuck with it," Dowling said.

Enrollment has been falling in all 3 districts. Ilion alone has seen a 20 percent drop over the past 15 years. And reductions in state aid have forced cuts in athletic, artistic and academic, programs.  Currently, only Herkimer offers advanced placement English, a staple in many schools.  

A feasibility study conducted over the last year suggests that a merger or “centralization” of the districts would create more opportunities for students.

Ilion Superintendent Cosimo Tangorra agrees.  "Just by coming together we provide each other more opportunities in terms of athletic opportunities, college now courses, AP courses," said Tangorra. "What gets lost is that were gonna lose more opportunities if we don’t... move in this direction."

To help with the transition, this new district would receive extra aid from New York state, totaling more than $70 million over the next 14 years.  That would go towards leveling salary differences from the three districts, helping to cover the increased transportation costs, and of course, reinstating programs that have been cut.

The problems faced in the Mohawk Valley are not unusual. Twenty-four other districts in New York are considering mergers. Professor William Silky of LeMoyne College began studying mergers back in 1986. He says in addition to fewer students and less aid from the state, school budgets are also hurt by recent state limits on property taxes.  

"Now, the new tax cap on school districts limiting the amount of levied increase that school districts can ask their local communities is creating a real fiscal problem for school districts, and they’re eating up any reserves they have," Silky said. "And so they’re looking for alternatives."

Many opponents of the merger are concerned their taxes will rise, but Silky says that is not what history shows.  "We’ve got hard figures on that. Taxes do go down and they stay down for an extended period of time in almost every instance," he said.

New York has about 700 school districts, and the state government would like to see more of them merge. Chuck Szuberla is the Assistant Commissioner for School Operations at the New York State Department of Education.  He says the state uses that “incentive” aide to encourage smaller districts to combine.

"We would like to, we think there could be much greater efficiencies in areas. there would be increased course offerings for students," Szuberla said. "When you initially start up, the money is seen as a way to facilitate it and is phased out over time."

But the critical mass that makes more programs possible, means a school district that is too big for some parents. In Ilion, Dan Dowling says he will consider moving his family to a smaller district if the merge goes forward.

"If we combine all these schools, where’s the focus.... on just my son? He’ll be one of thousands then instead of one of just a couple hundred," said Dowling.

Other opponents worry what happens when the aid runs out, and about possible job cuts for teachers and staff. But opposition, too, often comes down to the way towns identify with their schools and sports teams. That leads to some thorny questions, says Bill Silky.

"What’s the name of the district going to be? What are the colors going to be of the district? What mascot is it going to have? Believe it or not in almost every study I’ve done, one district has felt it’s better than another district," he said.

If Herkimer, Mohawk and Ilion all pass the referendum, the long-time football rivals will be united under a new banner, and Friday nights will look a little different in the Mohawk Valley next fall. 

Luke Tubia reported this story as part of the New York Reporting Project at Utica College. You can read more of the project's stories at their website, nyrp-uc.org.