Doing more with less has become a mainstay for schools across rural Wayne County, but these school districts haven’t lost sight of what matters most — the student.

Doing more with less has become a mainstay for schools across rural Wayne County, but these school districts haven’t lost sight of what matters most — the student.

Districts across the region have seen declining enrollment numbers for the past several years. Add to that cuts in state aid and greater academic demands by the state and it had become obvious Wayne County schools had to start thinking outside of the box. These challenges nearly four years ago prompted a collaborative study through the Wayne-Finger Lakes BOCES and all 11 school districts in the county to research the creation of regional high schools — the first study of its kind in the state. The purpose of this study was “to examine ways of maximizing educational opportunities for students, and the potential savings, management improvements, and benefits to the community in developing regional high schools” and included a highly responsive community survey.

Even then, enrollment projections were grim, with an average estimated drop of over 19 percent for most school districts by 2018-19. In the end, the study found “business as usual is not an option for the future.”

Small schools, big problems
Rural schools in recent years have faced double trouble and its ongoing. A New York state school aid formula, which rural district administrators and others in education have so far unsuccessfully lobbied to change, penalize smaller schools in less wealthy areas, they say, due to a funding formula that takes into account factors such as tax base and enrollment. Meanwhile enrollment is shrinking.

Statewide, school enrollments have been declining since 2001-02, according to the state Education Department, going from 3.3 million to about 3 million public and private school students. That's forcing administrators to mothball buildings and explore not only team, but entire district, mergers.

In January 2012, community leaders in the Finger Lakes region gathered to discuss the findings of a study on a potential shift to regional high schools that might help save money by combining school districts. With Ontario County’s school districts facing budget concerns, a potential shift to regional high schools could help save money by combining school districts, said representatives of the Center of Governmental Research.

Kirstin Pryor, CGR associate director, said the Department of Education and the Board of Regents are pushing for “new ways of doing business,” and creation of a regional high school would require approval by the Legislature.

Scott Bischoping, district superintendent at Wayne-Finger Lakes BOCES, which promotes coordinating programs and services in the region’s rural school districts, said recently “there is no legislation which would allow for a regional high school. However, there are currently bills in the New York State Senate and Assembly; the outcome of these bills will determine further efforts towards a regional high school.”

Pupils or politics?
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has told officials facing fiscal crisis that they should consolidate services of whole governments and school districts rather than look for relief from Albany. Cuomo said politics is standing in the way if mergers and consolidations that would save taxpayers money and improve efficiency of services.

For a regional high school, “it doesn’t make sense to jump into it,” Pryor said recently. The idea created a range of reactions from positive to negative, she said. In the end, districts showed they are willing to make some big decisions about how they do business, even if it doesn’t fit the regional high school model.

“Increasingly, leaders understand something has to give here,” said Pryor, likening the process of sharing programs and services to a romantic courtship. In initiating a relationship, you first have to ask, “do you want to date?” she said. You may get a range of reactions. Some school districts have made decisions already.”

Dismissing a concept
It’s unlikely new legislation would change the mind of many Wayne County residents about the idea.

“The Palmyra-Macedon Central School District is a system that the community loves and supports,” Pal-Mac Superintendent Bob Ike said. “This was evident at the community forums held for the release of the Regional High School study. Participants sent a message to the Board of Education that they were not interested in a regionalized high school.”

Pal-Mac residents were not alone. The study showed that communities across the county were fiercely loyal to their local school districts and resistant to the idea of change. The concept of four regional schools, while expanding opportunities for students, split those loyalties, and more importantly showed the savings would only be about 3 percent.

Newark Assistant Superintendent for Business Bob Fogel said the concept offered a variety of advantages, but posed just as many challenges that would have been difficult to overcome. Among the top of those challenges was the distance students would have to travel everyday to get to school. As a result, Ike and Fogel said their districts took no further action to continue exploring the concept.

Gaining a new perspective
The regional high school study had its merits. Fogel said the study provided ideas for local school superintendents to spin off of for new concepts in shared and consolidated services.

Much of the sharing of services is done through BOCES or directly with other school districts, Fogel said. Superintendents across the county are working together to reduce costs for transportation by coordinating bussing for certain students to schools as far as Rochester, he added. Academically, Fogel said, it is impossible for every school to offer every class a student might desire, so Newark works with neighboring districts to accommodate students. A course may be offered at Newark and be attended by some students from the Lyons School District or vice versa, Fogel explained.

Sports is another area where schools are welcoming outside students. Fogel said this past year, Newark did not have a ski team, but they did have an Alpine skier. That skier joined another team in a nearby district and represented Newark during meets.

New this year, Newark turned over its payroll services to the central offices at BOCES. The school district is already part of a consortium through BOCES to get reduced electric and natural gas rates as well as employee health insurance — “One place we save the most money,” Fogel said.

Pal-Mac is part of the same insurance consortium, the Finger Lakes Area Schools Health Plan. At Pal-Mac, the sharing of services or consolidation is not attributed to declining enrollment, Ike said. The district, through its budget process, has examined enrollment and reduced staff positions when enrollment no longer supported a program without hindering the education for the students, he added. According to Ike, the district has reduced 36 positions over the last five years due largely to changes in programming and enrollment.

“Sometimes sharing sounds good but may not actually be efficient or cost-effective,” Ike said. “Sharing may also lead to a reduction in the level of services that are expected. All of the district’s shared services are regularly evaluated in consultation with other school districts as appropriate.”

Ike said Pal-Mac has taken advantage of many opportunities to share. The district shares a food service director with three other school districts and shares a transportation supervisor with the Gananda Central School District.

Pal-Mac is a component school district of the Wayne-Finger Lakes BOCES and also cross-contracts with other BOCES throughout the state, he added. Services shared with other school districts through BOCES include business office services, cooperative purchasing, educational technology, health and safety, labor relations, special education programs, substitute teacher assignment, staff development, technical and career education. In addition, Pal-Mac hosts a BOCES Satellite Project Lead the Way program for high school technology students. Fourteen students from Gananda currently attend these PLTW courses at Pal-Mac.

The district has sharing arrangements for plowing and fueling services, in partnership with the towns of Macedon and Palmyra, and the village of Palmyra, Ike said, and participates in a Shared Transportation Service with 10 other school districts for student transportation to particular programs throughout the county. Ike said Pal-Mac also is part of the Wayne-Finger Lakes Area Workers’ Compensation Plan. This consortium of over 20 school districts provides workers’ compensation benefits at a total annual cost that is more than $1 million less than if districts participated in the traditional NY State workers’ compensation fund. Pal-Mac will save over $50,000 in school year 2013-2014 alone through this shared services arrangement.

“Shared services is really a matter of economy and efficiency,” Ike said. “In order to provide the best possible educational opportunities for our children, shared services and efficiencies have been examined, and in some cases, executed in order to maintain the quality of learning that Pal-Mac residents expect.”