Is it time for the North Country’s really small school districts to vanish?

Tomorrow during the 8 O’clock Hour, I’ll talk in-depth with Cynthia Ford-Johnston, the innovative school superintendent of Keene Central School in the Adirondacks.

With just 160 students in the entire district, this is the kind of hyper-small school that many education experts say is unaffordable in an age of budget austerity.

As a warm-up to that conversation, I want to repost a blog essay first written back in February.  The basic question remains the same:  Is it time for more tweaking and minor course corrections in North Country education?

Or is it time for a big re-think?  Check this out, comment below, and listen for Ford-Johnston’s thoughts tomorrow during the 8 O’Clock Hour.

Original Post:

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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52 Comments on “Is it time for the North Country’s really small school districts to vanish?”

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  1. Walker says:

    Deficit at the end of each president’s term

    1953 – 266 billion – Truman
    1961 – 288 billion – Eisenhower
    1963 – 305 billion – Kennedy
    1969 – 353 billion – Johnson
    1974 – 475 billion – Nixon
    1977 – 698 billion – Ford
    1981 – 997 billion – Carter
    1989 – 2,857 billion – Regan
    1993 – 4,411 billion – Bush I
    2000 – 5,807 billion – Clinton
    2009 – 11,909 billion – Bush II

    That’s the _whole_ story, so far, since 1953. Reagan nearly tripled the deficit he inherited and Bush II more than doubled his starting deficit. No one else came _close_ to their performances. And what sets their economic policies apart is tax cuts, especially for the wealthy.

  2. Bret4207 says:

    Gee, you forget one- OBAMA $1.4 TRILLION! And he’s only halfway through his first term.

    Yes, Reagan/Bush did substantially increase spending, with a Democrat House through both terms. But if you’ll recall that was at the height of the Cold War and at a time when the nation was reeling from 4 years of Carter and his “Misery Index”. Those times were different. I can sort of understand why it was done having lived through those days. What didn’t happen that should have is that Congress should have tightened the purse strings after the USSR fell. They didn’t, Inspite of that things got better over the next decade until Clinton burst the Tech Bubble with his anti-trust charges against Microsoft. Way to go Bill.

    That doens’t answer for your charges that this is all the fault of Republican Preisdents. The Congress sets the spending agenda, the Congress has been under Democrat control more than twice as much since Truman. Lets not try and pin this all on the Prez be he Dem or Rep. They’re all in it together and none of them has been acting responsibly.

    And to be honest, if Al Gore or Kerry had won, do you honestly think spending would have been LOWER? Come on!

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