A consolidated county school district is not in the cards

For as long as I can remember, the idea of a consolidated school district has been a favorite Monroe County whack-a-mole—a pest to be hammered back into its hole whenever it rears its head.

So it’s not surprising, I suppose, that when people first hear about the Great Schools for All goal of countywide or interdistrict schools to integrate middle class and poor children across district lines, they think we’re calling for merging all 18 school districts in the county.

We’re not. And here’s why.

Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team

Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team

People in Rochester are very attached to their school districts and see them as essential to local control of their schools and their children’s education. There’s no reason to upend all of that — or to have an argument that gets in the way of our fundamental purpose: guaranteeing that every child has access to a truly great public school.

It’s true that we often cite the consolidated Raleigh/Wake County, NC, school district as a model for our proposals. But the Raleigh situation is quite different from ours. In the mid-1970s, Raleigh and Wake County did consolidate school districts, but there were just two — a city of Raleigh district and a Wake County district that governed all schools outside the city. While it was controversial, that merger required a simple vote by the state Legislature — not the convoluted process such a merger would require in Monroe County.

Moreover, while consolidating city and suburban districts under one governing authority  might be an efficient way to manage steps toward integrating middle class and poor children, consolidation is only a means to an end, not an end in itself. In fact, you could easily imagine a consolidation that focused simply on improving economies of scale as a way to hold down taxes — while leaving segregated schools in place. There’s nothing about consolidation that guarantees access to a great school for every child.

So our interest in Raleigh is not in the merger process, but in what we can learn about the types of magnet schools that attract a wide range of families, about the ways the school system develops transportation plans for moving children across the county, about the many ways each school looks to build a community that embraces and works for poor and affluent children alike, and about the procedures that help create and maintain a socio-economic balance of students in each school.

And what we’ve seen is that Raleigh, like Hartford, Omaha and Minneapolis, can help us figure out the problem and develop a Rochester-centric approach to eliminating high poverty schools. That’s what GS4A is all about.

Many of us in the Great Schools organization have no philosophical opposition to school district consolidation, but we believe that we can achieve our goals without consolidation  and that a long, drawn out struggle over consolidation would likely last many years and end in failure — as another generation of children struggle in high poverty city schools.

Just in case you were wondering about that long convoluted process I mentioned above, the New York constitution does not specifically permit the Big 5 school districts (Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Yonkers and New York City) to merge with other school systems. State law does permit, and even encourage, suburban, rural and small city districts (with populations below 125,000) to consolidate to achieve savings and/or a wider array of programs. But outside the Big 5, school districts are autonomous, governed by elected school boards with their own taxing authority. Their budgets are subject to voter approval, but their finances are not tethered to the municipalities in which they operate.

Neither state law nor the constitution offers any guidance regarding mergers with large city school districts. The issue is legally murky and mysterious.

The Big 5 districts are essentially departments of their city governments. Their boundaries are co-terminus with the cities. They have elected school  boards, but those boards have no taxing authority. The local revenue the Big 5 receive comes from the municipal tax levy; city and school funding are part of the same budget pot and are jointly subject to a constitutional tax limit.

This fiscal dependence on the city makes a merger with other districts problematic.

Logically, it seems that a constitutional amendment is needed to permit Big 5 districts to consolidate with others. An amendment could be adopted only after two consecutive legislatures approve a revision making city school districts independent of city government (there is no legislative constituency for such an amendment), followed by a statewide referendum (there is no statewide voter coalition in support of this change). An amendment is about a likely as a Lake Ontario going dry in the next 10 years. Even if an amendment were to be approved, it would only make consolidation possible, not mandatory. Voters here would have to embrace the change.  Consolidation may be a means to an end, but it is not the only means, nor is it available to Rochester.

We can either wage a quixotic campaign for consolidation, or we can try to solve the problem. GS4A has opted for the latter.