Now that a state commission has called on Albany to push _ if not force _ schools to merge, the fiscal crisis surely will put the merger issue on the table again during the next few years.
Several schools have merged in this area over the decades, but several others have thrown the option to voters, only to have it rejected. On both sides, it is always a controversial and emotional issue.
You can tell from a list of school names which districts were formed by merger. There's Una- and -tego, there's B and G, CV and S, G and MU, C and R, G and C, and S and E. And you realize by the presence of the letters that the communities involved were concerned about preserving some identity in the merged district.
When districts in the town of New Berlin merged in the 1990s, people gave up their identity for a name that makes geographic sense: Unadilla Valley, after the river valley that is home to the communities.
I have been in this area for 25 years, and when I arrived, the only merged districts were Unatego, Bainbridge-Guilford and Gilboa-Conesville. Through my work with this newspaper, I was aware of the sometimes-bitter struggles that existed whenever a merger proposal surfaced and went to voters.
In the 1980s, the state Education Department was encouraging small districts with declining enrollments to merge into larger ones. It was seen as a way to consolidate services while at the same time provide students with more special ed and academic options.
It was also the start of a drive for tougher student academic standards, known back then as the Regents Action Plan, which resulted from the ``A Nation at Risk'' assault, in 1983, on the mediocrity of American public education.
The state offered to pay for school-merger studies and also to bolster aid once a merger occurred.
But even with state incentives, the issues bringing merger to the attention of local school boards were more about aging buildings, and the need for space to fulfill special ed and academic mandates, than about property taxes.
The first districts to merge some 20 years ago were Cherry Valley and Springfield, but the process was filled with emotion and divisiveness on both sides. The vote was 625-461. And a new school was built. Today, only older folks remember when the communities had small, separate districts.
Not all mergers were successful, however. When Gilbertsville, Morris and Mount Upton voted on a merger, Morris residents rejected the proposal, or today we would have M-GM-U instead of G-MU.
The issues for Morris people were the usual anti-merger factors: fear of losing community identity and a dislike of the idea of busing young children longer distances to school.
A school is a focal point for a small community, functioning not only for education but as a community center, a sports venue and a performing arts center. In a small town, those factors are important, and often hard to give up for the sake of some bureaucrat trying to erase dots off a map.
And while some mergers have maintained elementary schools in distinct communities, others have not. Putting a 6-year-old on a school bus for a five- or 10-mile daily run is not a pleasant thought for many parents.
Those issues have had a lot to do with Schenevus rejecting merger proposals with Worcester over the past 25 years. Worcester residents have favored the idea, while people a few miles down Route 7 have not.
So, after 15 years of relative merger calm, late last year, the State Commission on Property Tax Relief recommended that school districts with enrollments of fewer than 1,000 students should consolidate or merge as a means of reducing operational expenses.
It's no secret that most schools in this region have enrollments of fewer than 1,000. So, in the midst of fiscal crisis and the pressures to boost student performance not waning, area schools may be forced to consider their merger options.
This time around, the notions of community identity and young children avoiding longer bus rides may be luxuries that districts and taxpayers cannot afford. Or, if they can, they will come with a higher cost.
In earlier days, stemming the rise of property taxes was never the primary motive for school merger. Experience has shown that taxes for merged districts do not take a dive, but maintain their course.
Now, however, as enrollments continuing to plummet and with trimming expenses being the prime mover, it's possible that merger and other cost-saving efforts proposed at the state level might be met with friendlier voters.
Cary Brunswick is managing editor of The Daily Star. He can be reached at (607) 432-1000, ext. 217, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.