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Bigger school districts for better schools

February 25, 2012
Editorial by the Adirondack Daily Enterprise: Publisher Catherine Moore, Managing Editor Peter Crowley

Local school officials are wrestling with the state property tax cap. Lake Placid school officials face public pressure to fire their superintendent. Tupper Lake's combined superintendent-principal arrangement is under new scrutiny. And over in Beekmantown, the need to cut $3.2 million in school operating costs has led to a draft budget that would eliminate 43 employees and all sports - but no district office staff.

With that news as a backdrop, it's a good time to bring up a cost-cutting measure many people have brought up before, but which no community (at least around these parts) has been able to muster the political will to do.

There is efficiency to be gained by merging our small, hyperlocal school districts into larger ones.

And if we can do it in a way that retains schools and their separate sports teams and identities, most students and their community supporters wouldn't notice the difference. The great Saranac Lake and Lake Placid hockey rivalry that flared up Thursday night would remain. (Congratulations, Red Storm, and condolences, Blue Bombers.) So would the annual Mayor's Cup football game between Tupper Lake and Saranac Lake. Any state rules that might block such an arrangement - high schools within the same district having separate teams - should be changed to allow it. It's in the state's greater interest.


What matters


It doesn't matter to students whether the superintendent, business manager or other district office workers are in the same building as them or an hour's drive away. It shouldn't matter to any of us. The argument that every one or two school buildings need, to function effectively, their own $130,000 superintendent and $80,000 business manager, on top of an $80,000 principal, is nonsense (and those salary estimates don't include benefits). A principal is in charge of a school; a superintendent oversees many schools on a broader basis - not day-to-day operations.

At that pay rate, we figure a superintendent should oversee 10 to 15 school buildings. That's how things are commonly done all over New York and throughout North America. Look at any city, for example.

What does matter to students is when teachers are laid off, classes get bigger, course options are eliminated, schools are shuttered, extracurricular activities are cut or boards hire poor administrators because the talent pool is too shallow for the legions of tiny schools that need them. That's the path we're going down now.

We may still need to do some of those things if we merge districts, but less than if we don't.

Granted, bigger school districts aren't a cure-all - Beekmantown is one of the North Country's larger districts - but merging would save some money and have other benefits, too.


More administrator job competition needed


Merging would also help everyone (except the administrators) by deepening the talent pool for superintendents, principals (including would-be superintendents) and teachers (including would-be principals).

As an example, look at the Lake Placid Central School District, where the board has hired two superintendents in a row who have not worked out. The first, Jim Donnelly, was cut loose with a letter of recommendation and a pledge not to say anything bad - just to be foisted on another unsuspecting rural school district, struggling in vain to determine what their job applicants are really like.

We've heard some people in the school industry call this shuffle the "Dance of the Lemons."


School boards


Here's a question: Would district mergers eliminate local school boards? Well, others might be able to arrange this better than us, but couldn't each school have its own advisory council to make recommendations to the larger, elected, district-wide school board? It could be like a town planning board, or a PTA with more responsibility. It's likely that the larger board would happily delegate nitty-gritty operational oversight to the advisory councils.

This would also deepen the talent pool for school board members and give potential future members training on the school advisory councils.


Can't quantify savings yet


It's unclear how much money would be saved by merging districts, since it hasn't been done and because the size of consolidated districts is up in the air, but it seems reasonable to us that the North Country could drop four of every five superintendents, plus a lot of district office staff members. Also, efficiency could be gained in busing and in sharing specialized teachers, insofar as it makes sense.

(Another big way to cut costs is for unions to do the right thing for students and mitigate their obsession with raises and benefits, even when that means their fellow workers will be laid off - but that's another editorial.)

Andrew Cuomo, when he was attorney general, used to talk about how expensive it was for New York to have so many small local governments. Shortly after he became governor, he recommended that any school district with fewer than 1,000 students (in our area, only Saranac Lake has more than 1,000, and only barely) should be merged with its neighbor(s). And our state senator, Betty Little, has said for many years that school districts would be better off merging along BOCES lines. Like everyone else, they don't know how much money could be saved by merging, but like most people, they know money could be saved. The inevitable argument of "we first need to prove how much we'd save" is just a stalling mechanism.


It's up to us


Politically, Gov. Cuomo and state legislators are too smart to force local school mergers. Instead, they're starving them out with a tax cap without mandate relief. They're ensuring the bottom line and leaving the rest to home rule.

That leaves decisions like this up to us. And by "us," we mean the people, not the superintendents. Last year, the superintendents of the Tri-Lakes school districts met to discuss the possibility of merging districts or even sharing services. Unsurprisingly, they decided not to.

"It all depends on whose ox is getting gored," Saranac Lake Central School District Superintendent Gerald Goldman told the Enterprise at the time, making it clear that the decision was based largely on the fact that none of them wanted to lose his job.

But it shouldn't be their call anyway, and they know that. It's up to the people and our elected leaders. If school boards, following a public mandate, voted to merge districts, superintendents would have to respect that decision.

Imagine a merger of the districts the Enterprise covers: Saranac Lake, Tupper Lake, Lake Placid and Keene. Each school could keep its doors open as well as its principal and hopefully all its teachers, and have an advisory council as well.

Our communities face a choice: We can let our school boards keep gutting our schools' core product, making our children less educated and our communities less attractive to people who might move here, or we can rally to merge districts and make education, not employee protection, the top priority.



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