Are North Country schools bleeding out?

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.

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118 Comments on “Are North Country schools bleeding out?”

  1. Mervel says:

    OL has a point also. If we step back and look at how much we spend and how much we get, there are some questions, much like in US health care we spend a lot per student in the US compared even to Europe and we are not getting the same results. Something is going on that needs to be looked at in a fundamental way.

    However that is not relevant to our local discussion, we have a problem right now and we have to figure it out within the constraints we have been given.

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  2. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Don’t get me started on Regents exams!

    Too late. I’m not current on the new Teaching to the Test programs but I can pretty clearly remember spending unGodly amounts of class time doing “Regents Review” — taking tests from previous years and going over the answers until you pretty much knew exactly what questions would be on the test and a strategy for determining the answer.

    It seemed like a huge waste of time. But hey, I qualified for a Regents Diploma. And then went I went to college I ended up taking basically the same lower level English, Math, and Physics classes as I did in HS.

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  3. Mervel says:

    Well except now with the cuts, those kinds of courses are not going to be offered at all in our High schools in the NC. In Canton they are talking about doing away with almost all AP courses, things like Physics etc.

    To me the way we are cutting is lunatic, I know we need to cut, but core science and math should be the last to go in my opinion, particularly given our economy today.

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  4. Mervel says:

    I love the NC but frankly our children are in middle school and elementary school, and because of what is going to happen and is happening to the schools, it is causing us to seriously consider leaving. Our children are in general good to great students, the fact is though college today is extremely competitive and in the end I want what is best for our kids. I was OK with our schools being average or a little above average because they were smaller and the social environment is good and we have had great teachers. But I am not willing to intentionally have my children go through high school in a place where the superintendent is saying in all honesty that they are educationally bankrupt, unable to provide the minimum education needed and with zero advanced courses, not in today’s world.

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  5. Rancid Crabtree says:

    newt says:
    February 20, 2013 at 9:38 am

    Re that post Newt- I’m not saying the State shouldn’t pay for their mandated courses. I’m saying if they and the Feds are mandated by law to pay for them, removing the burden from the local system, there is no guarantee the State and Feds won’t raise taxes by a large amount to pay for it or that the locals will lower the taxes. I think ending the mandates is a better solution.

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  6. Rancid Crabtree says:

    I think I agree with Larrys idea of a traditional, basic education. Traditional and basic doesn’t mean a poor education. It means teaching the core fields- Math, English, etc. Not multiple new age PC courses. If a kid desires to become a physician, great! Give him the opportunity to prepare for that. I’m sure online courses could be developed if a tiny portion of the kids need advanced chemistry or math or science. But if the kid has no desire to attend college, then why are we training him for that?

    I don’t mean to sound contradictory, but we used to have a much better educated nation. Somewhere we started teaching to enter college and we got worse results. Whatever we’re doing, it isn’t working.

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  7. Dave says:

    I have just read all these comments and they are good ones. I think people should think of a school district as a larger thing than one school. The adk park could be one district with lots of schools….or it could be each county. Then some schools could pick a focus area and be a charter school, resourses like special ed can be easily shared, etc. Also, no comment has mentioned the internet. What the net does is deliver infinite information over any distance…..surely this can have huge benefits, no?, esp for young kids? Consolidation will start with resource sharing….then deepen as cost savings take hold and when the mergers are defacto done already voters will approve mergers. But in the meantime districts shouldn’t be afraid to ask voters to pass the budgets they need regardless of the cap.

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  8. Dave Mason says:

    sorry, I meant to use my full name….i am traveling, using a pad so excuse the typos

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  9. Dave Mason says:

    The net is not just for AP classes. Ever watched a child learn arithmetic on the net? Find a way to see this sometime and you will be amazed. Experience with the net in the park is limited so people have a hard time seeing how big a role it can play in basic education.

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  10. dbw says:

    Given our energy constrained economy, our best bet is a return to a small local schools with electronic access and more parental involvement and volunteering.

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  11. Dave Mason says:

    Dbw, I think you are on the right track for young kids. High schools may be handled a bit differently, mixing locals with foreignstudents and inner city kids for enrichment. Adding high school students from outside the region adds a lot of value in addition to the money, and the incremental cost of the added students is nil. High schoolers also get a lot of leverage from net based instruction where they can proceed at their own pace.

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  12. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    While the internet and computer technology are great for all kinds of thing and necessary for everyone to be familiar with they come at a very high cost, both initial investment and recurring costs.

    Chalkboards and erasers last indefinitely, and they were paid for decades ago. Chalk costs, what, $1.00 per box?

    Computer, re-wiring a school, internet access with enough bandwidth for a school, IT person…what does all of that cost?

    Of course hard copy textbooks are ridiculously overpriced too.

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  13. Rancid Crabtree says:

    Knuckle, judging by the number of time our local high school and elementary schools have been updated for internet and computer upgrades, I find it difficult to believe it would be all that expensive. For that matter, a good number of high schoolers already have their own laptops or PCs.

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  14. mervel says:

    In Silicon Valley the best private schools for those kids, use no technology, do not use smart boards do not in particular use computers. Their parents know as technology executives that at the primary school level (high school certainly may be different) these tools do not work. Classroom instruction by a good teacher is not something you can replace, ever.

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  15. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    RC, don’t think you aren’t still paying for those upgrades. That multi-million dollar bond you voted on included those costs and you will be paying for them for many years in your taxes.

    It is a cost that may or may not skew the numbers state to state or district to district. If school A has just completed a major building project to upgrade a 50 year old facility and school B is in a 20 year old building, relatively new but now paid for, does that affect the per pupil costs?

    Does the cost of running a facility in the cold north in the winter negatively affect the comparison to a facility in the south which presumably wouldn’t have high energy costs to cool the building in the summer?

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  16. Rancid Crabtree says:

    What does any of that have to do with on line instruction, conferencing or courses Knuckle? What you said was that the costs of upgrading so “distance learning” could be implemented was prohibitive. I wonder if that’s true. I’d like to see and objective 3rd party assessment before dismissing the idea.

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  17. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    My point was that all of that sort of things come at a cost. While in many ways it adds to the numbers of tools available for instruction the tools are very expensive.

    I don’t think I used the word prohibitive, because in fact our schools have been buying this hardware and software. What I am wondering is if the outlay of funds skews the reported cost per pupil. And when we compare per pupil costs are we comparing schools that have undertaken an expensive transition in technology with schools elsewhere that haven’t? When do we expect the benefits of those investments to show up in our student test results?

    Presumably somebody is doing cost benefit analysis of this sort of thing. So does anyone have that information?

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