Are we budget cutting our North Country schools to death?

Photo: KB35 creative commons, some rights reserved

Heading for a dead end? Photo: KB35 creative commons, some rights reserved

On Tuesday, we New Yorkers will vote on the future of our education system — the future, that is, measured in a 12-month chunk.

The reality, though, is that we’re in the middle of a cycle that’s much larger than 12 months. For decades, our North Country schools have been shedding kids, with lower and lower enrollment counts. Since the Great Recession, we’ve also been shedding dollars and staff and programs.  Check out my conversation with Martha Foley for a lot of the context.

The question, really, is where this is all leading.

Schools have long been the lifeblood of our region’s communities, shaping much of the local spirit and identity, providing many of the best jobs. They also do the important work of nurturing and preparing our children. So what happens if this enterprise literally goes bankrupt?  What happens if we can’t afford to keep the doors open or the lights on?  Or, more concretely, what happens if we whittle away program after program until the schools are hollow?

These aren’t pure hypotheticals.

More and more mainline educators say the 2% property tax cap, the flatline regional economy, and flat or dropping state aid are pushing schools into a death spiral. Governor Andrew Cuomo has essentially argued that local districts have to live within their means and find creative ways to make this all work. But my sense is that a lot of districts in our region aren’t crying wolf.  They’re out of ideas, out of money, and almost out of time.

So what do you think?  Short of giving schools a blank check, is there a way to make our rural and hyper-rural districts sustainable?

And what are you seeing now in your district?  If you’re a teacher, is the experience you’re providing still a good one?  If you’re a parent, what do you think of the education your child is receiving?

Comments welcome below and don’t forget to vote tomorrow.


71 Comments on “Are we budget cutting our North Country schools to death?”

Leave a Comment
  1. Justin says:

    All im saying is check out the site at the bottom. The Watertown school district should have done this 3 years ago. when it was proposed by students. “They’re out of ideas, out of money, and almost out of time.” said the artical..well here is your idea and money..They Already cut the Teachers so there is the $716,000 they can save every year.

  2. Mervel says:

    I agree newt I don’t really understand it either it is really interesting. The article is good.

    I think also though we are different economically in that we are really more a part of the rust belt than we are a part of New England. Many parts of the North Country particularly where I am from are much more like Flint or Buffalo than they are a quint rural town in Vermont.

  3. The Original Larry says:

    In terms of teacher’s schedule, salary and benefits, it’s worth remembering that the salary was reflective of the schedule and that the benefits were, in turn, reflective of the relatively low salary. In plain language teachers didn’t earn much but got decent benefits, a relatively short work day and essentially a nine month work year. Now that equation has been blown to hell: salaries are competitive with or better than other industries, benefits are still largely free to teachers but the cost to school districts has skyrocketed and only the schedule is unchanged. Not a recipe for success.

  4. Walker says:

    Larry, that “short workday” isn’t so short when you have papers and tests to grade, lesson plans to write and classes to prepare for. I’ve known teachers who took it easy, but I’ve also known those who routinely burnt the midnight oil.

    And entry-level salaries often aren’t all that good– it’s the teachers who’ve been working forty years who are earning the big bucks, and drive up the averages. Some of them might actually deserve it, many don’t, but it’s the result of their contracts. Automatic increases make sense for maybe the first ten years or so; after that it would make sense to have raises that basically equal inflation.

  5. Paul says:

    Working from 7:30 to 3 or 3:30 is not what I would call a short work day even if they were not doing other stuff? Tonight I will be at a concert that I assume the teachers don’t get paid extra for. I don’t know where that comment came from but it seems like kind of a cheap shot.

  6. The Original Larry says:

    I must have touched a nerve there! The comment comes from long personal experience. I never yet met a teacher who wouldn’t gladly tell you how hard they work. In any case, I said it was a relatively short work day. You want to make excuses and mince words, go right ahead. By the way, there are precious few teachers with 40 years experience, most have long since maxed out those sweet pensions and retired. You could look it up.

  7. Mervel says:

    Its not really about the time. Teaching is physically and mentally exhausting, it really is, if you are good and giving it your all. I don’t begrudge classroom teachers what they currently make, I don’t think that is the problem. If you want to look at salaries pull out every single person working in a school that is not a primary classroom teacher and examine what they are making and add that to the total budget. The term “teachers union” is kind of a misnomer, many and sometimes most are not classroom teachers who are covered by this union.

  8. The Original Larry says:

    In the Lake Placid schools, 69 people made $50K or more in 2012 for an average of about $63K. Not sure if that qualifies as “big bucks” but it doesn’t suck. These are not teachers with 40 years experience.

  9. The Original Larry says:

    In Newcomb, 21 made $50K or more for an average of $71K. 48 people were on the payroll of a school district with 83 students. Total payroll: $2.1M Total budget: $5.09M

    Do the math.


  10. mervel says:

    I have no problem paying a classroom teacher 50-60k or more. However, of the 48 people on the payroll of newcomb how many are classroom teachers? So you have 83 students K-12, about 7 kids per grade. Each grade needs a teacher for certain, you come up with 12 teachers one per grade. So who are the other 36 employees?

  11. oa says:

    Vermont schools outside Burlington and a few other well-to-do towns suck. Vermont is also losing young people, and in some districts haven’t been able to buy new textbooks for years and years. It is not heaven, no matter how much the typical Burlingtonian will tell you so.

  12. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    In the news today there are more stories about the heroism of teachers, this time in Oklahoma. They cared for and comforted children in the face of a tornado even as they worried about the safety of their own children.

  13. V. Burnett says:

    Ya. Teachers are rich. Especially here in the North Country. LOOK at the mandates and qualifications to obtain and maintain that precious NYS certification for the job. LOOK at how much it costs to obtain those qualifications. Go to a site like PayScale or SalaryExplorer and enter the data – You might need to find a trusting teacher friend to help you. Don’t forget that master’s degree, multiple special training certificates, several hours of ongoing training in your field (over vacations, during “days off” and often at your own expense) ect, etc…. when you are filling in those big payday numbers.

    Compared to national averages for the same required level of training in other fields you’ll find that most local teachers with less than 15 years of experience are probably earning at somewhere between the 16th and 30th percentile nationwide. Yes, teachers have a higher standard of living compared to most other Upstate NY residents but the teaching profession is underpaid everywhere when compared to other industries and is seriously underpaid here.

    And don’t bother throwing that whole “but the standard of living is lower here” crap at me. Most teachers that I know here have less expendable income in their budget than local people who receive a welfare check. The take home salary of most teacher aides qualifies them for food stamps. It is NOT that teachers are being paid too much, it is that our local economy does not have enough money to compensate them fairly. That is a true statement and is something we could try to fix if we would stop arguing about teachers and other education workers being “money grabbers.”

    Let’s stop pointing our fingers at teacher salaries and get down to really talking about how we can make education affordable in Upstate NY AND about whether or not we really WANT to educate children here. Some commentators here at NCPR seem to harbor the secret desire to just do away with public education. Let the parents pay for everything. Maybe that’s the real conversation we need to have before we can resolve this ongoing spitefulness directed at the people who spend 8-10 hours a day with our communities’ children.

  14. The Original Larry says:

    Everyone wants to go on about school buses, sports programs, cafeterias, etc., but the largest expenditure and the one nobody wants to talk about is the total cost of professional staff. It’s a huge issue and it needs to be addressed if there’s to be any substantive improvement in the current situation. Stop with all the excuses, particularly the one that puts teachers in a worse situation than welfare recipients. Comments like that detract from the credibility of the people who make them. Also, nobody has argued for doing away with public education, but now that you mention it, why not? I have never understood the “equity” of paying for a service one never has and never will make use of. And don’t give me that “good of the community” BS, either. Anyone with any kind of ambition leaves town anyway, educated or not. This is not a discussion you want to get started.

  15. Brian Mann says:

    Paul –

    Actually, schools can’t throw in the towel. Districts can, yes. But public education is a legal right in New York state.

    If one district goes dark, the kids have to be absorbed into neighboring districts and offered an education.

    Original Larry –

    I think the idea of not educating our children is both impractical and immoral. Fortunately, the vast, overwhelming majority of Americans understand the importance of collective investment in education.

    That doesn’t mean we won’t quibble over dollar amounts, programs, teacher salaries, etc. But the debate over if/whether to have public education already happened in the 1800s.

    Public schools are far and away the most popular single institution in our communities.

    –Brian, NCPR

  16. The Original Larry says:

    I don’t favor doing away with public education but when I am accused of it I feel like I should mount an argument for it, theoretical though it may be, because that accusation is intended to stifle any discussion of change in a particular direction, i.e., cutting spending. Casting a certain position as moral or immoral is the height of presumption and should also be answered. How moral is it to tax some people at a higher rate than others? How moral is it to propose a 24% budget increase in a time of recession? There are also many issues that were debated and decided in the 1800s that we are better off for having revisited. How moral would it have been if the decision in Brown vs. Board of Education had affirmed what had been debated and decided in the 1800s? You can’t cut off debate by summarily claiming the moral high ground, no matter how much you would like to. Trying to do so polarizes the debate and adds bitterness and absolutism to both sides.

  17. Mervel says:

    Public education certainly is a right in NYS, but there is no qualification for how the state must meet that right. I think districts can close and consolidate schools, I also think districts can disband, but this is a different issue from a right to public education. For example if you choose to live in Wanakeena, arguably in my mind one of the best places to live in the North Country, you can’t demand your kids get a school in Wanakeena. You have to put them on the bus to Clifton-Fine. If Clifton Fine closes the state could say take the bus to Tupper Lake and so forth and so on.

  18. Mervel says:

    This happens in rural places all over the US, check out how far ranch kids are from their schools in Wyoming or Western South Dakota for example.

  19. Red says:

    Added to the discussion is the quality of education for the money we pour into the schools. I am sure V Burnett is a wonderful teacher. I have a different perspective of what goes on in some schools and classrooms. I substitute teach and tutor students in multiple districts. I am at a particular high school three days a week. My experience is chaos in high school classrooms and hallways. My experience is students getting average grades in a course and failing their regents tests with 30%. When I work with them, they don’t have a grasp on the subject concepts at all. Their class grade did not accurately reflect their knowledge. When I question the teacher, I am told they receive 100% for doing their homework. The homework isn’t ever graded. The 100% is just for doing it and that pads the overall grade and gives an inaccurate assessment of the student’s mastery of the course work.

    I keep hearing we need to pour more money into the education system and we will get a better product (well educated child) out. I do not see that as true. I think that needs to be discussed. What is an education? What is a well-educated child?

    I think we should raise the qualifications for a person to get into college for an education degree. I think the education degree coursework should be much more rigorous. ( I am very familiar with SUNY Potsdam and the education students). Then I think we should pay the teachers that come out of these schools on par with doctors, lawyers, etc. We should expect excellence from them and we should expect an excellent educated child as a result.

  20. V. Burnett says:

    One of the hardest things to discuss regarding education (or any public service) budgeting is employee compensation. I apologize that my tone in yesterday’s post got a little aggressive.

    There are some very important questions that we need to address as we work through this worsening education crisis. I believe that the question of whether or not to maintain public education is a valid starting point. I suspect that the answer to that question is “Yes.” I suspect that none of us want to live in a community where over 50% of the children have no hope for success in adulthood. (I base that number on average free/reduced lunch rates in St. Lawrence County. Those parents certainly can’t afford private or home-school education costs.)

    If we want to maintain public education, we need to find a way to pay for it – and the most expensive component is going to be personnel. We can talk about consolidation & mergers and shared administrative costs. Many districts are already talking about that, study results are suggesting that it won’t actually save taxpayers significant money in the long run. We can talk about distance learning. Online or distance learning could be a tremendous tool for students who are excited about learning and families who highly value education and I know that BOCES is experimenting with how to make that happen. We can talk about busing – but let’s not forget that the state regulates how long a child can be on a bus each day and that some children have IEPs that further limit that time span. (We live 4.5 miles away from our school and the bus takes 45-50 minutes to make it to my house because of the complicated rural route and IEP demands.)

    We should also talk about what is fair pay for educators. Do community members recognize that the level of professional preparation to work as a teacher in NYS is among the highest in the nation and that local administration is severely limited in their ability to waive or defer qualifications mandated by the state? Do community members have an understanding of the costs of training and other parts of the application & approval process? (Figures for student debt for a master’s degree range from $30,000-50,000 – approximately $400 per month to re-pay within 15 years.) Obviously, enough teachers are willing to work for lower compensation than their similarly trained peers to keep our local schools fully staffed but how much less should we ask them to work for, how tight a budget are people willing/able to live with? At what point does our regionally low average starting salary start to deter the best job candidates? How many benefits can a district eliminate before teaching there isn’t a viable career option anymore? Can you cut out health and retirement benefits from a job that starts at $30,000 a year and expect well qualified, highly educated young professionals to come and work? Is it fair to ask that teachers who have worked decades to reach a reasonable level of pay for their service to give up benefits that were promised at the beginning of their careers?

    Speaking to the cost of other school employees, if you check DSS website, you will see that Teacher Aid salaries (around $14,000 a year) are definitely low enough to qualify a single parent for food stamps and other benefits. How low can/should we go with their compensation packages? Aides, janitors, cafeteria staff, secretaries, bus drivers all do a good, hard day’s work. What is fair compensation for them? Where do we want to land as communities in the difference between compensating people to do a job well (even if the take home pay is modest) and handing out unemployment benefits and public assistance because we’ve cut their jobs or forcing them to either use social services for health care or go without because we’ve cut benefits? (I know that many hardworking people in our region go without any health care plan. Is that a reasonable standard?) Considering state mandates for 1 on 1 aides, mandate tracking paperwork, etc. how many aides and secretaries can we cut before the school loses accreditation?

    If we work through these and other hard questions and come to the conclusion that the North Country simply can’t afford decent education under the current funding structure, and I’m almost positive that we would, what can we do about that?

    Nothing, unless Cuomo and the State Ed Department want to listen to reason and distribute money fairly across the state, provide the mandate relief that was promised years ago and free up the resources to make options like distance learning a reality for districts in our region. Schools will probably close. We will not enjoy the results we will see in our communities.

    I suspect that we will see the following: fewer working families, an exodus of trained professionals, higher truancy rates, higher crime and drug abuse rates, greater welfare dependency, more behavioral problems in the classrooms – possibly resulting in greater expenses for special services and/or sending students to juvenile facilities outside the area, more teen pregnancy, greater class divide between those who can afford to educate their children outside the public system and those who can’t, an even greater class divide between those who live & raise children here and those who can afford to spend their vacations here and educate their children somewhere else, significantly fewer students pursuing higher education, loss of valuable community assets – plays, musicals, sporting events, community access to fitness and other resources in school buildings – and the further collapse of the economy as a whole as folks with real jobs lose them and stop spending money locally and as our communities become increasingly ghettoized – in a rural sort of way.

    It doesn’t have to happen this way. An equitable school funding formula would solve the school budget problems. That requires action from our elected representatives. The North Country is at a disadvantage because we simply don’t have enough reps on our side to win the battle state wide. What we really need to do is stop arguing with each other and buy a few really, really good lobbyists.

  21. V. Burnett says:

    Red, I am not a teacher but belong to an extended family with many current & retired education professionals and have many friends who are teachers & employees in school districts around St. Lawrence county. I’ve heard their stories and long ago decided that I’m not cut out for teaching! I’m simply not that patient or dedicated.

    And, yes, there are many more problems than simply budget issues in our local schools. The entire local culture in some areas feel antithetical to progress in education. The best and only real solution to that is to improve education & the local economy. It will take a longtime and I think we can’t do one without the other. We may be at a point here where things could tip either way. NYS could decide to value and support education, innovation & entrepreneurial business in struggling rural districts and give us tools to climb out of the pit or they can keep piling on the unfunded mandates and inane testing requirements and leave our students, teachers and communities out in the cold.

Leave a Reply