Will we find a way to reinvent North Country schools?
The story in the Plattsburgh Press Republican last week said it all. Peru’s central school district is scrambling to close a $2.9 million gap for next year’s budget — and this follows in the wake of roughly $1 million in cuts last year.
”It’s been painful,” School Board member Lisa Crosby said at the meeting, according to the P-R. “This year is going to be devastatingly painful.”
The same narrative is playing out across the North Country. District after district is moving forward, year by year, with “incremental” cuts that are slowly gutting the quality and richness of our public schools.
Today’s Glens Falls Post Star talks about school districts making “desperate choices.”
“We are trying to stretch out ours as long as we can,” Fort Ann Superintendent Maureen VanBuren told the newspaper. “None of us want to be the first ones to figure out what to do if we become insolvent.”
It’s like that old tale about the frog. You throw a frog into a boiling pot of water and it does its best to hop out. But if you put a frog in a pot of water and slowly turn up the heat, it’ll cook without ever noticing.
That’s what we’re seeing happen before our eyes. Education programs are hollowing out. Value-added programs for talented kids are being stripped away.
Support programs for children with special needs shelved or trimmed back to the point of meaninglessness.
And the thing is that everyone knows we’re still just setting off on this journey. Schools across the region see their population of kids dwindling, their funding going down.
Unless we get a grip on this, it will be a million dollars in cuts here and million dollars in cuts there until someone turns out the lights.
Before I talk about possible solutions, let me first acknowledge the hard work that boards of education, administrators and teachers have been doing already
When the economy tanked in 2008, the state budget toppled into a meat grinder, and property tax revenues flattened. The poor folks running our schools found themselves squarely in the cross-hairs of a global meltdown.
Then, when the 2% property tax cap sailed through the legislature, they were promised help with mandate reform that never arrived.
While everyone else was talking in abstract terms about lean government — this means you, Governor Cuomo — local schools had to do the brutal work of actually cutting important programs.
But the hard truth is that this is the future.
No one I talk to thinks that funding for education is ever going to soar back to the growth levels we once enjoyed. Nor are costs for things like pensions, energy, and healthcare going to shrink.
So the time has come for education leaders in our region to pivot from desperately bailing the old life boat to building a better new boat that will survive the coming storm.
Here are six concrete steps that can help save (at least some of) our public schools.
1. Stop talking about the past. Stop denying that fundamental change is inevitable.
I get it, we all love our schools. We wish they could continue to look the same and do the same things going forward that they used to do. But that’s over.
The truth is that everything changed about five years ago and we’re just waking up to the fact. Unless we put all our options on the table and talk about how to create a new, affordable model for schools, the future will be extraordinarily painful.
2. Each school district needs a new vision, driven by community values.
Districts should convene community dialogues to decide what exactly it is that schools can and must do. What is the core, the heart, the essential mission? This will guide the rest of the conversation.
When we cut programs (and we will cut programs) which should be held sacred? When we’re forced to partner with other districts (and we will be forced to partner and share and merge) how do those alliances serve our core values?
When should we be willing to go beyond the 2% property tax cap?
It’s also important to clarify which local values match (or don’t match) the educational mandates coming from Albany. That way, we’ll know which fights to pick.
3. All the old turf garbage has to be thrown out. Right now.
The Los Angeles Central School district educates more than 640,000 kids, spread over a vast geographic area, tackling levels of cultural diversity and neighborhood conflict that we can’t even begin to imagine.
In our hearts, we all know that the north Country’s balkanized, village-by-village education system is a throwback to the horse and buggy days.
So no more muttering about how different Keene is from Elizabethtown, or how awesome the geographic and cultural divides are between Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake. Start partnering and sharing and merging. It’s time. It’s do-or-die.
Click map to view full size.
Even if you do all the things in steps 1, 2 and 3, things are going to get tough. Especially if some of your core values require some lofty or expensive goals. So talk honestly about that.
If your community insists on maintaining a fully autonomous district, even if you have only a few hundred (or a few dozen) kids, make it plain that that approach will almost certainly cost local taxpayers — big time. Lay out the numbers.
5. Open a new dialogue with teachers.
Teachers have values too, obviously, and those go beyond salary and benefits. So put everything on the table. What’s the new model for fair and reasonable, sustainable and respectful compensation?
Take the conversation deeper than a traditional short-term contract negotiation. What will give teachers real job satisfaction? More job security? Better pupil-teacher ratios? More training or support in the classroom?
Are there innovative trade-offs that can make teachers happier and more affordable at the same time? Teachers, meanwhile, need to force their unions to think more broadly than pushing for annual pay increases and holding the line on pensions.
Again, stop denying that fundamental change is inevitable.
5. Be sure to set positive goals as well as negative ones.
Yes, your plan going forward will include painful decisions. Consolidation, closed buildings, fewer teachers and programs. All those are possible, and even likely.
But once you have your values in place, find some programs that are important enough that they need to grow and get better. Become a magnet school. Develop some specialties.
When you have to go beyond the property tax cap to pay for the school district’s core values, don’t be afraid of asking voters to do that.
In the end, I suspect that a lot of schools won’t engage this kind of transformational, values-driven discussion. They’ll keep fighting to maintain something that resembles the familiar and the normal.
They’ll keep thinking year-to-year, stretching out those fund reserves as long as possible. They’ll keep making what feel like responsible, pragmatic short-term decisions.
Meanwhile, the heart of the education experience will bleed out.
But those North Country districts that will still be strong in the year 2026 — when the current batch of kindergartners will be graduating from high school — are those that begin right now to plan for the inevitable transformation.