Consolidation and the Public Schools

On Thursday February 9, Consensus released its final report on government efficiency in Onondaga County. The report contains both service level recommendations and City-County consolidation recommendations.

The service level recommendations are things like coordinated snow removal and modernized code enforcement. These are the kind of nuts and bolts ideas that can improve government for everyone in the County. They are worth consideration.

The City-County consolidation recommendations are a travesty. The proposed governance structure will deny city residents any real control in the new government. That is unacceptable as long as Consensus refuses to seriously address public education.

Consensus proposes dissolving the city government and enlarging the county legislature from 17 legislators to 33. 15 of these would represent suburban voters, 5 would represent city voters, and 9 would represent hybrid districts including both city and suburban voters. Voters across the County would elect an additional 4 at-large legislators.

This proposal guarantees the suburbs a majority in the only local governmental body that will represent city voters. Even if city voters make up the majority of all 9 hybrid districts, they will only elect 14 of the 33 legislators. Suburban voters will completely control 15 legislators, and they will outnumber city voters 2-1 in elections for the 4 at-large seats.

The City cannot expect to benefit from a government controlled by the suburbs unless the City can trust the suburbs. That cannot happen until city and suburban school districts merge.

Differences between public school districts drive the differences in housing prices across Onondaga County. Houses in highly rated suburban school districts cost more than houses in the poorly rated city school district. This draws families with money out to the suburbs and pushes families without money into the City, effectively segregating the County by income. The resulting disparities in property tax revenue create a cycle of ever poorer schools and communities in the City and ever richer schools and communities in the suburbs. When school performance, property values, and community wealth all hang together, it is in suburban voters’ interest to maintain this status quo at the City’s expense.

As long as talk of a consolidation ignores the public schools, the City and its suburbs will remain divided. As long as the City and its suburbs remain divided, the City cannot trust a government controlled by the suburbs. As long as the City does not trust a controlled by the suburbs, there is no point in talking about consolidation.