Penn Yan and Dundee Central Schools ask for public input as they face the challenges of declining
enrollments, increased financial pressures, and the need to provide more educational opportunities.

What will the future of educational opportunities look like in Yates County, where over the last 15 years, enrollments in Penn Yan and Dundee School Districts have declined 30 percent? How can the districts provide opportunities to all students within the financial restrictions they anticipate in the coming years?

Those are the basic questions members of the school districts boards of education and administration are asking the public. The discussion opened at a meeting held in Dundee July 19.

By the end of the open forum with parents, staff members and others, Penn Yan School Superintendent Howard Dennis and Dundee Superintendent Kelly Houck had a lengthy list of ideas and comments to organize and ponder as they plan the next steps to take.

Dennis said educators are looking for creative ideas and solutions. “How do we deal with things on a long term basis to prepare students to compete in the world they will face?” he asked.

It didn’t take long for someone to bring up concerns about discussion of a merger or consolidation. While one member of the audience said there could be community push back out of fear that the Dundee school would be closed, others from both communities supported exploring all options, including a potential merger study.

“There are no bad ideas,” said Houck, adding, “We are well aware of what can be done legally, and we are well aware of our size and how that determines what we can do. We need to think big. The opportunities that students are provided shouldn’t be determined by our zip code.”

Houck said while this meeting was not to discuss a merger study, she did want to explain that a merger cannot happen without six votes (three in each district) being positive. “Both communities are equal partners,” she said.

The first vote would be to conduct a merger study. The second vote would be a straw vote on a merger concept and the third vote is a final referendum on the merger plan. The process stops if there is a negative vote at any point in the process.

New York State provides financial incentive for mergers with $28 million available for a new district, according to Houck. Penn Yan Board of Education President Jeff Morehouse pointed out that the state funds new construction as the result of a merger at a rate of 98 percent.

Houck noted that research has shown that through mergers the district’s employment tends to increase, “because you are creating new opportunities.”

Dennis and Houck pointed to previous work between the districts during a 2011 study which also included Marcus Whitman. Some ideas for sharing services and programs came from that work, and while some did not result in effective efficiencies, other areas did. If nothing else, the process has opened the lines of communication between the districts.

Ideas that came up July 19 include providing technology, trade-related programs, advanced placement opportunities for high school students, perhaps offered through remote video presentation.

A Penn Yan parent voiced preferences for increased enrichment for elementary age students.

Other opportunities discussed include finding efficiencies in transportation, purchasing, maintenance, information technology, and other supportive areas.

Concerns included the impact of declining enrollment on sports opportunities at all levels. A Dundee parent said there aren’t enough youngsters to field Junior Scots football teams this year, so they will be playing with Penn Yan teams.

Dennis and Houck will compile the list of ideas and comments for further review. They will also establish an online survey to get more input from the public as well as students and staff.

Penn Yan Board member Nancy Scher suggested seeking help from a specialist at BOCES who can help the two districts explore all the options.

Dundee School Board President Laurie Richter said there are financial opportunities for both districts, and that all options for making the area’s schools the jewel of the region will be on the table.