By Rich Place

The West Valley School Board and interested community members last week learned the Springville-Griffith Institute School District would be a better fit than Ellicottville should West Valley pursue a merger.

Dr. William Silky of education consultants Castallo & Silky on June 21 went so far to note that a West Valley/Ellicottville merger is not a good fit financially, saying pursuing such a merger “doesn’t make financial sense.”

Meanwhile, both financially and in various other aspects such as population, school district size and course offerings, a West Valley and Springville-Griffith pairing seemed favorable.

The West Valley School Board last autumn ordered a pre-merger feasibility study that focused on several facets of a potential merger with Springville-Griffith and Ellicottville school districts. The study is part of the very beginning stages should a merger be pursued; a full merger study would need to be conducted by a second participating district before votes by the school board and community would be required.

Silky and his staff, which included Stephen Bocciolatt and Dr. Suzanne Gilmour, presented their findings that covered a wide array of aspects of the districts including enrollment, geography, educational opportunities, teacher salaries, administrations and finances.

Nearly the entire presentation focused on West Valley and Springville school districts except for one PowerPoint slide, titled “Why Ellicottville Won’t Work.”

The slide presented current tax rates and how much incentive aid — the amount of money the state gives to the combined district to merge — would need to be used specifically for taxes not to increase for Ellicottville taxpayers.

With West Valley’s true tax rate at $19.73 per thousand and Ellicottville’s at $8.48, Silky said it doesn’t make sense financially for the two districts to pursue a partnership. The amount of incentive aid needed to balance rates is $1.71 million, or 181 percent what would be estimated to come from the state, according to the presentation.

“Simply doing this table told us it just doesn’t make financial sense,” he said. “It just doesn’t.”

Instead, Silky concluded there was enough reason based on information presented that it “probably makes sense” for West Valley and Springville to think about looking into a potential merger or annexation.

Silky noted “there wasn’t a great deal of interest” from the Ellicottville school district in terms of being involved with the study. The school was only willing to participate as long as the district would be reimbursed for any cost related to the study, he said.

“Even if there was an interest on the part of them, it just would not work,” Silky said. “From a financial perspective, even if we had full cooperation from them in this, it probably would not be a feasible opportunity, at least at this point in time.”

Meanwhile, in terms of finances and tax rates, because Springville and West Valley only differ by $2.70 per thousand — with Springville’s tax rate at $16.33 per thousand according to the presentation — it would make more sense to West Valley to pursue a merger with its neighbor to the north. Only 17 percent of projected incentive aid for the combined districts would be used to balance the tax rates, he said.

“Our conclusion is that in many respects, your two districts are very similar,” Silky said about West Valley and Springville, “but there are differences, of course.”

The report outlined enrollment — with Springville’s at 1,698 students in K-12 and 215 students in West Valley — including trends through 2024 with populations expected to decrease.

There was also significant conversation on the incentive aid provided by the state, as the new potential district would receive approximately $29.84 million over the 14 years following the merger, according to estimates provided in the presentation. Silky said much of that money is used so taxes do not increase for either party involved.

The combined district’s geography was also discussed, as a combined West Valley and Springville district would be 205 square miles. By comparison, the Randolph Central School District is 262 square miles.

“I’ve been around the area quite a while so I know what 262 square miles is,” said Bocciolatt, a former superintendent at Randolph and Little Valley. “It’s certainly do-able. What I think we are trying to show both in the report and on this particular chart is that it’s not out of the norm of what some school districts do.”

Following the presentation and a question-and-answer session with community members, West Valley School Board members discussed their next steps, which are limited after they approved a contingency budget for the 2018-19 school year earlier in the evening following the second failed budget proposal on June 19.

The budget failed, 219-167, and a bus proposition that was defeated in May also failed again, 210-172. The 2018-19 school year will mark the second time in three years West Valley will operate under a contingency budget after the budget proposition also failed to pass in 2016.

“We are a little stymied right now because the board cannot move forward on commissioning … for a fuller study under the terms of a contingency budget,” said board president Stephen Kowalski.

He challenged the board to come up with a plan that can be presented to the community to decide what the next steps should be for the district.

“We need to move forward with what we have and make what we have better,” he said.