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NYS Law on School District Mergers

The following questions are taken from "School Law, 33rd Edition" printed by the New York State School Boards Association and the New York State Bar Association.

What is school district reorganization?
School district reorganization is the term used to define the statutory processes by which two or more school districts are merged into a single district or a school district is dissolved. The various methods of school district reorganization include centralization, annexation, consolidation, and dissolution, each of which has a different purpose and implication. Each reorganization procedure is limited in its application to one or more of the organizational types of school districts: for example, union free, central, common, and city school districts.

What is centralization?
Centralization is the most common form of reorganization. A new central school district is created by the merger of two or more contiguous districts, with a new school board and boundaries that encompass the area of the districts being reorganized. Under the Education Law, city school districts are not eligible for centralization.

What is annexation?
Annexation is a reorganization procedure whereby any school district, other than a city school district, is dissolved and its territory annexed to a contiguous central school district or to a union free school district. The dissolution of the annexed district is a part of the annexation process and is different from the dissolution of a school district ordered by the district superintendent.

Unlike in centralization, annexation does not result in the creation of a new district, nor is a new school board elected. The operation of the annexing school district remains basically the same before and after the annexation. Residents of the annexed district become eligible to vote and may be elected to the school board of the annexing district in subsequent elections.

What is consolidation?
Consolidation is a reorganization procedure that may involve the merger of any combination of common or union free school districts to form a new common or union free school district. Central and city school districts may not participate in the consolidation of union free and/or common school districts.

However, consolidation may also involve the incorporation of districts contiguous to city school districts of cities with populations of less than 125,000 residents into the city School district. The resulting school district becomes known as an enlarged city school district. Similar to annexation, the district to be consolidated will cease to exist.

What is dissolution?
Dissolution is a seldom used form of reorganization in which a district superintendent by order dissolves one or more districts within his or her supervisory district and forms a new district from such territory. Alternatively, the district superintendent may dissolve a district and unite the territory with an adjoining district or districts, other than a city school district.

A district superintendent may also partition existing union free, central, central high school and enlarged city school districts, dissolve and reform the district if necessary, and form a new union free or city school district out of such territory upon certain specified conditions set forth in the Education Law section 2218.

What is the Master Plan and its impact on school district reorganization?
The Master Plan, codified in 1972 in section 314 of the Education Law under the name State Plan, is an administrative and statutory effort intended to advance school district reorganization so as to provide education facilities in the most efficient and economical manner, while also serving the best interests of children. The plan was originally adopted by the State Education Department in 1947 and was designed to encourage consolidation, annexation, and centralization, in order to improve the functioning of public schools. The result was massive reorganization of districts, a reduction in the number of school districts in the state, and the creation of larger districts.

Is there a legal procedure whereby a school district can be broken up and divided into two or more smaller districts?
Yes. An example of this was the creation of community school districts in New York City, which was accomplished by a change in the Education Law that required enactment of a specific law by the state Legislature.

The Education Law also allows district superintendents to partition off, dissolve, and reform and form a new union free school district from certain existing districts and under certain specified conditions. However, the district superintendent has no such authority regarding city school districts and enlarged city school districts.

What is the role of the commissioner of education in school district reorganizations?
While the commissioner of education is not authorized to compel a reorganization of school districts without voter approval, the commissioner does play a pivotal role in school district reorganization. This role includes, but is not limited to, preliminary activities conducted prior to voter consideration of district reorganization.

In most circumstances, the process of district reorganization begins with an order issued by the commissioner. For example, the commissioner issues an order laying out the new district boundaries for a centralized school district. The order laying out the new school district does not constitute the establishment of a new district, but is a proposal made by the commissioner upon which the residents of the new proposed district will vote. ' In an annexation, the commissioner issues an order dissolving one or more common, union free, or central school districts and annexing the territory of such district(s), or portion thereof, to one or more adjoining central or union free school districts, subject to the approval of the voters of each affected district.

Furthermore, only the commissioner has authority regarding the reorganization of the city school districts and enlarged city school districts, and the removal of any portion of such a district to form it into one.

Although the commissioner has the statutory authority to independently issue orders concerning reorganization, the practice has been that the commissioner will not issue these orders until an adequate feasibility study has been conducted and indicates that the proposal is desirable, that the people in the district have been informed of the potential reorganization, and that there is evidence that the majority of the voters in the affected district or districts support the proposal.

Reorganization Procedures

Are there any preliminary steps school districts must take before they can reorganize?
Generally, the first step toward reorganization includes joint meetings between the affected school boards to gain information and to determine whether reorganization offers sufficient benefits to warrant formal study.

If the boards agree that reorganization might be beneficial, they then typically undertake a joint feasibility study, also known as an efficiency study, which is a written report commissioned by a school district considering reorganization. Its purpose is to describe how a specific combination of districts may operate if reorganization were to be implemented. The commissioner of education has ruled that the authority to order a feasibility study rests solely with the school board; district voters may not compel the board to conduct such a study.

A feasibility study should include :

Current and projected student enrollments.

Current and projected professional staffing plans.

Current and projected housing plans.

A plan for educational programs and curricula in the proposed district.

A plan for transportation in the proposed district.

Fiscal implications of the reorganization, including changes in state aid, expenditures, and local tax effort.

Once the study has been conducted, the affected boards inform their residents of the potential reorganization and assess the public's support for the proposed reorganization. The established practice is that the commissioner will not take formal action to authorize a reorganization unless there is evidence of support in each of the districts included in the proposed reorganization. Public support may be assessed through the use of petitions or advisory referendums (straw votes).

Providing residents of the affected districts accurate ' information and an opportunity to address significant fiscal issues prior to a referendum regarding the potential reorganization is essential. Failure to provide such information and opportunity constitutes an irregularity that would require setting aside the referendum vote. (In one case, residents of one district in an annexation reorganization did not learn of a nearly $1 million deficit in the other district until after the reorganization vote.)

What are the procedures involved in centralization?
After an adequate study is performed indicating that the proposed centralization is desirable and that a majority of the voters in the affected districts support it, the commissioner of education may then issue an order laying out the territory of the new central school district. The order constitutes only a proposal.

Within 10 days of making and entering the order of consolidation, the commissioner shall transmit a certified copy to the clerk of each affected district. Within five days of receipt, the clerk of each affected district must post a certified copy of the commissioner's order in five conspicuous places within each district.

At this point, a petition requesting the commissioner to call a special meeting may then be filed. The petition must be signed by at least 100 voters or by the number of voters equal to at least 10 percent of the student population of the combined districts, whichever is less. The commissioner may then call a special meeting to allow the qualified voters in the affected districts to determine whether or not the new district will be created.

The Education Law authorizes two types of special meetings: one in which either the votes of all districts are combined, or an alternative procedure in which the votes of each district are separately tabulated, to determine if voter approval exists.

What are the procedures involved in annexation to a central school district?
After an adequate study is performed indicating that the proposed annexation is desirable and that a majority of the voters in the affected districts support it, the commissioner of education may issue an order annexing an existing school district to a contiguous central school district. Within five days of receiving a certified copy of the commissioner's order, the clerk of each affected district must post a certified copy of the commissioner's order in five conspicuous places within each district. The order becomes effective in 60 days.

However, the voters of any school district affected by the proposed annexation to a central school district may, within 60 days after the filing of the commissioner's annexation order, submit a petition requesting a referendum, signed by at least 100 qualified voters or by a number of voters equal to at least 10 percent of the student population in the district per the last census, whichever is less. Within 30 days of receipt of such petition, the commissioner must schedule a referendum and provide notice of the referendum in each district that has requested one to determine whether or not the annexation will occur. The notice of the referendum must be posted in 10 conspicuous places at least 10 days before the meeting. It must also be published in a newspaper at least three days before the meeting.

A majority of the voters in each district must vote in favor of the annexation in order for it to be valid. If the voters reject annexation, the question may not be presented again for one year except as otherwise provided by law. If the question of annexation is not again presented within two years, the original commissioner ' s order becomes null and void.

What are the procedures involved in an annexation to a union free school district?
After an adequate study is performed indicating that the proposed annexation is desirable and that a majority of the voters in the affected districts support it, the commissioner of education may issue and file with each affected district an order annexing an existing school district to a contiguous union free school district.

In this type of annexation, the law requires voter approval of the commissioner's order proposing the annexation in order for the reorganization to become effective. Therefore, no petition by the voters is necessary. The commissioner must fix a time and place for a special meeting for residents to vote on an annexation resolution. If the voters reject the resolution, the question may not be presented to ' the voters again for one year. If no meeting is called within two years after the resolution's defeat, the commissioner's order becomes null and void.

What are the procedures involved in the consolidation of union free and/or common school districts?
Upon receipt of a petition signed by at least 10 qualified voters of each affected school district requesting a meeting to consider the consolidation of one or more school districts, the respective school boards of the affected districts must submit a consolidation proposal to the commissioner of education.

Upon the commissioner's approval, a special meeting is called in each district to gain the approval for the consolidation by the qualified voters of each district. Each board must give public notice that a meeting of such districts will be held at a centrally located place in order to vote upon the consolidation. The meeting must be held not less than 20 nor more than 30 days after publication of the notice. If the consolidation is approved, a new district is created and a new school board is elected. If consolidation is rejected, the question may not be raised again for one year.

What are the procedures for consolidations involving city school districts?
In this form of reorganization, after an adequate study is performed indicating that the proposed consolidation is desirable and that a majority of the voters in the affected districts support the proposed consolidation, it must then be approved by the school board of the city district and the qualified voters of the adjoining district. If so approved, the adjoining district is dissolved and the territory is added to the city school district. A new district is not created, nor is a new school board elected.

What are the procedures for dissolving a district?
After an adequate study is performed indicating that the proposed dissolution is desirable and that a majority of the voters in the affected districts support the proposed dissolution, the district superintendent issues an order dissolving one or more districts within his or her supervisory district and annexing the territory to an adjoining district. If the territory of more than one district superintendent is affected by the dissolution, approval by a majority of the district superintendents is required.

Dissolution is the only reorganization process that does not specifically provide an opportunity for the qualified voters of the affected district or districts to make the final determination as to whether or not a reorganization will be implemented. However, the Education Law establishes a process by which voters may contest the dissolution by filing their objections with the local county court judge, who then appoints a committee to determine whether the dissolution should occur.

Is there a limit to the number of times a proposal to reorganize may be submitted to the voters within a given time period?
Yes. If a reorganization proposition is defeated by the voters, a revote on the same proposal cannot be called within one year after the original vote. Additionally, the commissioner's order for reorganization is deemed null and void if a second special meeting is not called within two years of the original meeting at which the voters rejected the reorganization, or if a second meeting is held and the proposal is again defeated.

Impact of Reorganization

How is the name of a newly created central school district selected?
The commissioner of education designates · the name of a newly centralized district Arial; in the centralization order. Subject to the commissioner's approval, school boards of new or reorganized central school districts may select a different name by filing a written request for a name change with the commissioner no later than 14 days before the centralization order is to become effective.

However, reorganized districts must comply with the commissioner's regulations concerning the use of simplified names.

What happens to the property and debts of former school districts after a reorganization?
Under all forms of reorganization, the newly reorganized district assumes the debts of the former school district, such as bonds or notes or those relating to school building construction. Any other debts of the defunct district must be paid off out of that district's assets.

In a centralization or annexation, the new central school district or annexing district "shall succeed to all the property rights" of the defunct district.

In a dissolution under section 1505 of the Education Law, the dissolved school district's property must be sold and the net proceeds of the sale are apportioned to the taxpayers of the dissolved district based on the latest assessment roll.

Special rules apply, however, to reorganizations conducted pursuant to section 2218 of the Education Law.

How does a school district reorganization affect employment contracts?
If a teacher has an employment contract with a school district, that contract is a property right subject to the normal rules of property distribution in a reorganization.

For example, in a centralization, the employment contract would be an obligation assumed by the new district.

However, one court has ruled that a collective bargaining agreement is not a contract assumed by an annexing district. In this situation, the teachers from the annexed district become covered by the collective bargaining agreement between the teachers and the annexing district, and the contract between the annexed district and its union is not enforceable against the annexing district.

What employment rights are provided to employees of districts that have been dissolved or reorganized pursuant to annexation to a union free school district?
The Education Law only specifies the employment rights of employees in cases of dissolution of a school district and annexation to a union free school district and reorganization conducted pursuant to section 2218. However, a separate section applicable to annexations to a union free school district provides that the employees of the annexed district become employees of the annexing district and retain their tenure status and seniority. If fewer teaching positions are necessary following the annexation, the teachers from both districts with the greatest seniority within each tenure area are retained in positions in the annexing district, and excessed teachers from both districts are placed on preferred eligible lists based on seniority. To determine "salary, sick leave and any other purpose" in the annexing district, service in the annexed district will be credited as service in the annexing district.

Other sections applicable generally to school district dissolution and reorganization further provide that where a district is dissolved and added to more than one school district, the teachers of the dissolved district are entitled to select the district in which they wish to be employed. Based on their preferences and seniority, they will be appointed to positions in the newly created district. A district that employs teachers from dissolved districts is required to accept the seniority credit acquired in the dissolved district and credit such seniority as if the teacher had served in the annexing district to determine "salary, sick leave and any other purpose." If there are more teachers than positions available, the teachers of a dissolved district are entitled to be placed on the preferred eligible list of the annexing district, in order of seniority acquired in the dissolved district. The teachers would then fill any future vacancies in the annexing district at the payment schedule set by that district.

What employment rights exist for employees of districts that have been reorganized pursuant to centralization, consolidation, or annexation to a central school district?
Although the Education Law does not specify the employment rights of employees in school district reorganizations involving centralization, consolidation, or annexation to a central school district, the State Education Department (SED) has clarified those rights. According to SED, in a centralization or consolidation, teachers in the former school district become employees of the newly created district. Thus, the teachers from both districts with the greatest seniority within each tenure area are retained in positions in the new district and excessed teachers from both districts are placed on preferred eligible lists based on seniority.

In an annexation to a central school district, the more senior teachers from the annexed district do not displace teachers in the annexing district. However, teachers from the annexed district are entitled to fill any new positions created by the annexation in the annexing district based on the seniority credit earned at the annexed district. Former teachers of the annexed district not employed by the annexing district are entitled to be placed on the preferred eligible list of the annexing district.

According to SED, similar rights are applicable in a consolidation with a city school district.

How are superintendents affected by reorganization?
A superintendent under contract, other than one in an annexing district, does not have employment rights in the reorganized district. However, that superintendent's employment contract is considered a property right and becomes an obligation of the reorganized school district. Thus, the reorganized district must pay that superintendent's salary and benefits under his or her contract.

Is state aid available to school districts that reorganize?
Yes. Additional operating aid and building aid is available to certain school districts that reorganize and comply with particular requirements of the Education Law.

Where can more information be obtained about reorganization?
Information about reorganization can be obtained by contacting the State Education Department, Office of Management Services: School District Organization and BOCES Services, Room 876, Education Building Annex, Albany, N.Y. 12234; or by calling the office at 518 - 474-3936. See also NYS Education Department, "Guide to the Reorganization o/School Districts in New York State" (July 2009)

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