Thinking about a big shake-up for North Country schools

In his state of the budget address, Gov. Andrew Cuomo went hard and fast at school superintendents, making a joke of their salaries.

“I understand that they sometimes have to manage budgets, and sometimes the budgets are difficult,” he said. “But why they get paid more than the governor of the state I really don’t understand.”

Cuomo also questioned the existence of roughly two hundred small school districts in New York state, with total enrollments under 1,000 students.

It turns out, about a fifth of those tiny school districts targeted by the governor are located right here in the North Country.  A quick survey of the AATV’s APRAP survey shows that we have roughly 40 districts with enrollment under a thousand.

Another 6-10 district have enrollments hovering right around that 1,000-student thresh-hold.  What’s more, at least seven of our region’s school districts have fewer than 100 students.

In a 2008 audit, the state Comptroller singled out the Piseco district, in Hamilton County, which has fewer than 30 students, pre-K through 6th grade.

According to the report, the superintendent in that district (who also has a secretary) makes up one eighth of the entire full time staff.

The question Gov. Cuomo is raising is whether that kind of overhead — with each district operating its own bus fleet, its own accounting department, employing its own superintendent and support staff, etc. — is sustainable.

In at least some cases, think the answer is probably no.

Here in the North Country, widespread consolidations will be made very difficult by geography.  But my sense is that in most cases the fiercest resistance to district mergers is cultural.  Put bluntly, communities love their schools.

That’s understandable.  But I think it’s time to look long and hard at making a serious and fairly fundamental transition.

Studying a map of the region’s school districts (on page 104 of this PDF), it’s hard to understand why more communities can’t follow the model established by “big” regional districts such as Saranac Lake and North Adirondack Central School Districts.

Those two districts have managed to consolidate huge geographic areas fairly smoothly into big districts, clawing their way above 1,000 students.  They also provide their communities with a great educational experience.

It seems reasonable to think that a lot of the North Country’s tiny disticts could do the same. Let me point to one example.

I’d like to see a study that shows how it might work if Elizabethtown-Lewis, Keene, Moriah, Westport, and Willsboro were consolidated into one entity, with separate elementary schools and one big central high school in Elizabethtown.

Taken together, that would mean a total of 1,800 students, and would save those communities millions of dollars a year in separate management costs.

That money could be plowed back into hiring teachers, building better arts programs, improving sports opportunities, and trimming property taxes.

(Other districts that look ripe for possible partnerships include Tupper Lake and Long Lake, Lake Placid and Saranac Lake, Crown Point and Ticonderoga, as well as Minerva and Newcomb.)

St. Lawrence County is taking the lead on this kind of “big think.”

According to the Watertown Daily Times, districts there are exploring the possibility of consolidating the entire county (along with one school district in Lewis County) into three big regional high schools.

Understandably, some North Country school superintendents are pushing back against the idea that their salaries — and their sheer numbers — are part of the problem.

But with enrollments dropping, and budgets tighter and tighter, I’m guessing that those districts that move forward on this will be the ones that have the best outcomes.

I don’t want to minimize the pain that this kind of thing causes, and I don’t raise this topic lightly.

I’ve been to football games in Moriah, and I’ve taken part in career day at Keene.  I know how much those communities cherish the culture and traditions of their schools.

I’ve watched the dismay in communities from Lake Clear to Raquette Lake when their schools have closed.  But I still think the governor was right to put this squarely on the table.

So what do you think?  Is it time for a big shake-up, or can our tiny districts hold on simply by tightening their belts one more time?

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15 Comments on “Thinking about a big shake-up for North Country schools”

  1. Mervel says:

    Well it should be a local decision. However as a taxpayer I think NYS has the right and obligation to say well you want an entire school district for less than 100 kids then you the local taxpayer can foot the entire bill. Why should some kids have 30,000 per student spent on them and other kids 5,000 per student with statewide tax dollars? On those small districts the cost per student is so high you could literally send them all to some fancy private boarding school.

    The logical thing to do would be smart consolidations of districts, not necessarily schools.

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  2. If Clapton is God, Warren Haynes is Jesus says:

    A microcosm of your consolidation proposal is about to be debated and voted on here in Lewis County. The South Lewis Central School district in Turin, NY, which encompasses one of the largest geographical areas in the state, is about to consider, with voter approval, closing all of its elementary schools (there’s three, located in Port Leyden, Glenfield, and Constableville) and bringing those students to the main campus in Turin. It will require the building of a new elementary wing onto the now existing middle and high school. The idea has been proposed before, but was voted down by the taxpayers. The rational is that there is significant savings to be had in no longer maintaining these three elementary campuses miles away from the main campus. It will be interesting to see if this time around the taxpayers will support the move.

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  3. TomL says:

    This post, like many articles I have read on the issue, confounds two distinct issues. Consolidating districts and closing schools are two separate issues. We can consolidate all of the districts in St. Lawrence County without closing a single school, if we wanted to, and save a bundle on administrative salaries.

    In most states, and school superintendent and his/her staff oversee multiple high schools, multiple middle schools, dozens of grad schools. I come from a county in Indiana with one school district that has:
    22,498 Students, 9 High Schools, 8 Middle Schools, 16 Elementary Schools, four K-8 Schools, 2 Early Childhood Centers, 2 Charter Schools and 1 Alternative School. It has a $200 million budget. And only one Superintendent. And his salary is $167,000 , comparable to many New York mini-districts.

    Combining schools can save money but is contentious for a number of good reasons. I can think of no reason why combining districts should be contentious – it is one of the ‘low-hanging-fruit’ in consolidation of government services.

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  4. TomL says:

    The first sentence in the second paragraph of my post should have said…

    “In most states, one school superintendent and his/her staff oversee multiple high schools, multiple middle schools, dozens of grade schools.”

    Oh well, better proof reading next time.

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  5. dbw says:

    Consolidation in SLC is 5-10 years away, and a lot can change, so it is really hard to predict what this will look like. We may be overtaken by energy issues by then. Life us what happens while you are making other plans.”

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  6. Brian says:

    It should definitely be on the table. But what needs to be factored into the discussion is bussing… many NNY students already have long bus rides, longer on the treacherous winter roads. How much worse will it be with consolidation or regional schools?

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  7. Pete Klein says:

    I’m with Tom. Consolidating districts would make more sense than consolidating schools and be done much faster than trying to consolidate schools. It would also avoid adding miles and miles to the bus rides to school.

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  8. Myown says:

    Yes to consolidating districts. Most are top heavy with administration. Some schools could even share principals. Cutting teachers should be the last resort. Only after districts are consolidated should there be any consideration of closing or merging individual schools, which would be rare.

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  9. dbw says:

    Sounds good, but those administrators are their for a reason, pushing paper for the State Education Dept. The paper work will have to go away too.

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  10. Mervel says:

    If you consolidated districts you may be able to actually add classroom teachers as you reduce administration and redundant special services which are usually quite expensive. I agree with myown cutting classroom teachers is the last resort and hopefully would not be required with district consolidation. Classroom teachers are not the driving cost of small fragmented districts.

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  11. Bret4207 says:

    We seem to have a sort of consensus. Consolidate the districts, thin out the administration, keep the teachers, all good in my opinion. I cannot support centralizing the schools more than they are in my area of SLC. My kids are already on the bus 3 hours a day and the long bus rides and resultant boredom end up requiring bus monitors to maintain order amongst our little darlings.

    Who knows what the future will bring? Maybe we’ll see a return to the smaller schools to avoid transport costs at some point. Hard to say these days.

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  12. john says:

    This is not the first time that these consolidations have happened in North COuntry Schools. Take a moment and think of all of the schools in our region with the word, ” … Central School”, in their names. This massive consolidation occurred in the 1950’s and 60’s. It was not without it’s share of contention, as evidenced by the way that some older residents will still bristle if you raise the issue. I am a retired educator from one of the small schools in St’ LAwrence county. From my own experience, this is the third time that the, ” 3 regional-high school plan”, has surfaced over the past 30 or so years. MAybe the third time is the charm. As is, there are 17 school districts, with 17 superintendents, with 17 business offices, with 17 teacher contracts, 17 service unit contracts, and on and on. Each of these districts is charged with carrying out exactly the same set of curriculum requirements with exactly the same mandates. Duplication of task doesn’t begin to describe it!

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  13. matt says:

    Yes, consolidate school districts. No, don’t consolidate schools.

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  14. oa says:

    One county, one district. Makes contracting for supplies, labor, etc…, much easier. Avoiding school consolidation as much as possible makes sense, too, to keep down busing costs. Gas is going up, and schools are great local cultural meeting points. This thread has it right.
    Take this to the governor, Brian.

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  15. Paul says:

    I own property in the St. Regis Falls school district. I have no idea how the local folks can survive with the rates we are paying there?

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