Facing declining enrollments and increasing financial pressure, Penn Yan and Dundee Central schools explore ways to give students more opportunities

Two joint committees are being formed by the Penn Yan and Dundee Central School Districts in an effort to identify ways for the two districts to offer more opportunities to students.

At a joint board of education meeting Sept. 20, board members heard the results of surveys conducted in both communities. Administrators recommend the committees as a way to keep communications open as the districts look for solutions to the enrollment and financial challenges they expect to face in the future.

One of the committees will explore possible combinations to enhance or preserve educational opportunities in the districts, while the other will explore possible combinations to enhance or preserve athletic opportunities. Both committees will report back to a combined board of education meeting yet to be scheduled.

In July, the boards held a forum to open a discussion between the districts exploring the opportunities they might find by working together in the future. “It was a great conversation, but it could have taken us in 12 different directions,” said Penn Yan Superintendent Howard Dennis.

That meeting resulted in surveys circulated to students, staff and members of the community in both districts. Dundee Superintendent Kelly Houck said the surveys have helped get thoughts from a greater audience.

During the discussion, members of the public had questions about the process that could eventually lead to a merger. Houck explained the process takes at least four years, and funds may be available from state representatives. Approval of a merger is dependent on three votes in both districts all being positive, she stressed.

The process begins when the two boards agree to a study and seek a consultant to collect information. Then, community committees look at issues such as transportation, facilities, academics, labor contracts, and more. The consultants report to both boards of education, and the boards decide if a merger should go to the community for a straw vote. If the straw votes are positive in both districts, a final vote is set by the state commissioner. A merger would have to be approved by voters in both districts.

If a merger is approved, the new district would receive a projected $28 million in state aid, according to Houck. Dundee Board President Laurie Richer said the additional state aid would provide an opportunity to create tax relief and apply savings toward innovations.

Penn Yan resident Mike Clancy said the discussions between the districts is producing good data, and he encouraged the boards to continue the discussions.

“We have to look past colors, mascots and some of those issues, and do what’s best for the kids,” he said.

Results from the surveys illustrate there are similar attitudes in both communities, with the Dundee school staff being the lone group that strongly favors a merger. Dennis and Houck summarized the results:

Student surveys

In Penn Yan, 805 students in grades 4 through 12 responded. In Dundee, 225 students responded.

A majority of students in both districts oppose a merger, and feel they have enough opportunities now, but Dundee students said they would like more extracurricular offerings and upper level courses.

Students in both schools said they are proud of the school community, and feel supported as students.

Staff surveys

In Penn Yan, 226 responses were received, and in Dundee, 54 were received from staff.

In both districts, the a large majority of staff rate their district’s efforts as satisfactory or very good. While staff in Penn Yan oppose a merger by a wide margin (58 percent against to 14 percent in favor), Dundee staff strongly support a merger (54 percent in favor with 18 percent opposing).

Penn Yan staff said they would like to see more enrichment opportunities, in particular STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) in the elementary and middle schools.

Dundee staff said they would like to see more electives and “trade” pathways.

Community surveys

In Penn Yan, 147 people responded and in Dundee, 260 replied.

Most community members rated the schools’ efforts satisfactory or very good. In both communities, a slim majority does not favor a merger, but some in both communities want to learn more information about what a merger would mean.

Respondents from both communities support the districts looking at smaller partnerships.

Opportunities for high achievers is a concern of people in both communities. In Dundee, over half the respondents would support tax increases to avoid cutbacks in classroom instruction.