By David Prenatt
Several residents spoke out at the regular meeting of the Westfield Academy and Central School Board Monday, Sept. 9, urging that a binding vote on consolidation with Brocton be delayed until certain questions could be answered.
In a June 18 straw vote, residents in both districts overwhelmingly approved consolidation. Members from both school boards met in August to discuss the process.
A binding public vote is scheduled for Oct. 9. Westfield board President Jeffrey Greabell said early in the meeting that if the vote is positive, the merger would proceed. However, if it is voted down, another vote could be conducted next year.
Westfield resident Mark Winslow presented a timeline of his efforts to determine if a consolidation would cause a great increase in transportation costs to Westfield due to a loss of state aid. He said he has been striving to have this question answered since January.
Brocton is designated as a child safety zone which allows them to pick up students closer to the school than the state minimum distance, yet it still receives 90 percent state aid for transportation, Winslow said. This designation can be made if it is demonstrated that there is a safety issue with children walking to school, such as lack of sidewalks or a high number of cars passing by the school.
However, the situation at Brocton is the same as that of Westfield, Winslow said, which could cause the state to reassess the safety zone designation. If this status changes after consolidation, the state aid could drop for both districts. Furthermore, he said if the state determines that Brocton received too much aid and requires repayment, Westfield would also be responsible for that debt.
"We need to figure the exact transportation costs before we vote on consolidation," Winslow said. "If Westfield aid drops to 80 percent, residents will see an increase in taxes from day one."
BOCES Superintendent David O'Rourke, who was present at the meeting, responded that the state office responsible for school transportation is the same one that oversees the merger of districts. "We will have a statement soon on where the issue of the safety zone stands," he said.
Tim Smith, a former Westfield board member also raised concerns about the consolidation vote. "Up until three for four weeks ago, I was 100 percent in favor of the merger. Now I'm not so sure," he said.
Smith said there were several issues in the community, such as transportation and the fact that at first there will be two superintendents and two business offices, which were making him re-think his position.
"How long are these 'twos' going to last and how much will they cost us," Smith said. "If there is an increase in taxes, is it just a speed bump for a few years? If my taxes are going to increase anyway, why do I want to risk closing this building and sending my child to Brocton?"
Earlier in the meeting, Greabell had noted that personnel from both districts, including both superintendents, would be needed at first to merge the schools. This would result in less savings to Westfield at first.
"The state has set up a process so that consolidations don't take place willy-nilly. ... The savings will take a while," Greabell said. "It's not possible to say how much savings there will be the first year, but there will be savings."
Westfield Superintendent David Davison had also noted that, while the district has been struggling with financial issues for years, careful management has allowed it to restore the fund balance that had been depleted to pay bills.
"People are concerned asking 'When will WACS be running out of money,'" he said. "In the next year or two, we will be reaching fiscal insolvency."
Westfield resident Frank expressed concern over the belief that the merger will result in an anticipated 30 percent reduction in taxes for Brocton, but only a 1 percent reduction for Westfield. He credited the Westfield board and staff for keeping costs down through the years, but asked if this was going to decrease the benefit of a merger for the district.
"It bothers me that because we did the right thing and kept costs down, we are getting penalized by our high school going there and Brocton getting the tax break," he said.
Resident Jack Beckman said he was concerned about increased class sizes along with teacher cuts. He also said he believed that the merger would result in increased taxes.
"Brocton has $35 million in debt," he said. "We assume that debt when the merger occurs. A vote for merger is a vote to increase taxes."
Board members responded at the close of the meeting that the district strives to make the process as transparent as possible. "I feel things are being discussed openly, said member Brenda Backus. "If there was a mistake, hopefully it can be corrected."
Board member Phyllis Hagen added that the primary reason for the proposed merger was to ensure quality education for the students.