Voters in Northville made it clear this week that they do not want to merge their school with the Mayfield Central School District. The outcome of the vote means the idea of consolidation can't even be brought up for at least a year.
While we disagree with the outcome of the vote, we recognize the right of voters to express their wishes. The question is: Now what?
Like many school districts in New York state, Mayfield and Northville face financial messes. Both districts have had to eliminate programs and staff because the schools can't be maintained as is, and both districts have lost more than $7 million in state aid during the past three years.
It's not going to get better for either one. Mayfield school officials are projecting an $800,000 deficit in the next budget, and that number could climb as high as $1.3 million in 2014-15. The Northville district's budget hole could top $1 million next year and could increase to $1.5 million the following year.
School boards in both places also have to contend with a state-imposed 2 percent cap on property tax increases. The limit can be overridden, but if the school budget votes in May were any indication, the public will not approve spending plans that exceed the cap. The Mayfield and Northville districts -- along with Broadalbin-Perth -- have also been locked in a battle with the Hudson River-Black River Regulating District over hundreds of thousands of dollars in back property taxes, but it doesn't look like any of the schools are going to see a dime of that money anytime soon.
It also doesn't help that school districts have very little local control over their budgets. Most of the spending is due to unfunded state mandates -- which are crippling taxing entities at all levels -- and contractual obligations. In reality, schools only get to play around with about a quarter of their budgets, meaning any additional savings have to come in the form of more staff and program cuts, or the money has to come from increased taxes.
So, we'll ask Northville voters again: Now what?
We understand that communities want to keep their individual school districts intact because they provide a sense of identity. No one wants their kid to spend long amounts of time riding to and from school (although many students in rural districts like Northville are on buses for a long time anyway), and obviously communities prefer to have local control over their districts. Ideally, it should stay that way.
Reality has a funny way of changing the game, however. School districts -- like other taxing entities such as cities and counties -- can no longer afford to operate the way they have in the past. Without any type of meaningful mandate relief coming from the state, combined with increasing costs, consolidation is the only viable option to keep schools afloat. In this case, a combined Mayfield-Northville district would have seen $19 million in aid from the state during the next 14 years. Residents in both districts would have seen a tax decrease in the first year -- although the savings in Mayfield would have been significantly more than in Northville at first. The merger would have resulted in the restoration of programs that have fallen on the wrong side of the budget axe.
That clearly didn't make a difference in Northville. We wonder if they'll change their minds down the road when residents see more programs and more positions cut from their district, putting the school in a position where it can barely afford to offer basic education to students. While districts like Broadalbin-Perth are able to offer courses such as nanotechnology and robotics, future Northville graduates will be lucky to get out of school with the basics if things continue on their present course.
Northville residents want to keep their school district the way it is. That's their choice and their right to do so.
But the question remains this year and down the road: Now what?