When State Sen. Catharine Young, R-Olean and state Senate Education Com-mittee Chairman Sen. John Flanagan, R-Suffolk County toured Chautauqua Lake Central School on Dec. 1 area school officials were able to attend and ask questions. About 75 people consisting of board members, administrators and superintendents attended the event, including Fredonia Central School Superintendent Paul DiFonzo.
Flanagan, who hails from Long Island, has 11 school districts in his region with the smallest school district having a population of just over 4,000.
"He is in a room with us with other districts around us that have 800 students or less, and I basically said to him that we currently have districts in Chautauqua County in our Erie 2 BOCES that do not offer AP courses, that do not offer sports, that do not have electives; that's going on right now in some of our school districts and the word insolvent is being tossed around," DiFonzo said before the rest of the board during its regular meeting Tuesday. "There are districts now where students are suffering, that don't have programs, they don't have the teachers they need and that are basically going to be insolvent within the next two years. What is the education committee going to do about that? His response was the same I think as (NYS Education Department) Commissioner John King's and that's is right now they're not sure what they're going to do."
OBSERVER Photo by Michael Rukavina
Fredonia Central School Superintendent Paul DiFonzo, alongside board president Roberta Coniglio and board member Dave Giambrone, reviews with the board of education his discussions with Sen. Catharine Young and Sen. John Flanagan during their tour of Chautauqua Lake Central on Dec. 1.
The word that state education is using to describe bankrupt schools is insolvent. DiFonzo said he has heard the term used on more than one occasion and said he worries what the state will do should school boards begin having to use that word to define their own district.
"They never have had a situation, I believe, in New York state where they've had more than two or three districts that have such financial woes in one year," he said. "The tradition has been if a district runs into a tight fiscal situation and becomes insolvent the state has bailed that district out. If they get 100 to 150 which has been projected by Dr. Richard Timbs from the Statewide School Finance Consortium they really don't know what they're going to do. Even if they get 10 they're going to be in a tough situation."
At some point, DiFonzo said, districts are going to have to consider consolidating or merging unless given another option.
"While I think it's great that Senator Young is putting forth a regional high school concept and it gives certain districts another option to consider I'm not sure it's the be-all and end-all for districts around here," he said. "I'm not sure when a district is already half empty and you ship your high school districts out and send them to one other district and keep that building open and keep a board of education, and an administration, and you have to worry about transportation; I'm not sure that's the best option. This is only my opinion."
Several unknowns will remain regarding a regional high school approach until districts begin to study all areas of concern, from transportation to contracts. As the Erie 2 Chautauqua-Cattaraugus BOCES-led Task Force continues to accept comments from area schools on the legislation proposed all items will be subject to change, including the possibility for a district to opt out if it so chooses.
"If a smaller school district gets involved in a regional high school they're done. They're not going to pull their students back three or four years later and restart their school with a pre-K through 12 school districts," DiFonzo said of the legislation as proposed. "If anyone is selling that story I need to see it on paper to believe it. The minute you enter into that situation that's where you are."
In some cases, DiFonzo said he felt consolidations or mergers would be better than a regional high school approach based on the remaining unknowns on regional high school legislation and the incentive aid schools would receive for consolidating.
"In some cases I think consolidation or merger might be better than a regional high school approach. If you look at some studies that have been done by districts that have looked at centralization numbers would bare that out. I think in the next two to three months it's going to become very interesting because Senator Flanagan also mentioned state aid is supposedly going to increase by $810 million but over half of that has already been earmarked to replace what Governor Cuomo cut out of the budget. That takes it down to $410 million and you have to wonder if rural schools are going to get the amount of aid they need to continue the programming they have."
Noting Fredonia has lost $2.9 million in state aid over the last two years, DiFonzo said there are still districts in the area in worse shape.
"I'm concerned about our area, I'm concerned about the programming that our students don't have. I think with the amount of money districts have lost, we've lost $2.9 million in aid over the last two budget years but bottom line is we're not the district that is in the worse shape around here," he said. "There are other districts that are going to go into this budget year facing more than $1 million of deficit and if you look at the budgets in our area, the size of the school districts, that's a lot of money."
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