This is a pivotal time for education. Small school districts like Lake Placid's and Keene's are under increasing pressure to share services with their neighbors, but usually local school boards can't see their way through to such major changes.
Now each has a precious opportunity: The Keene Central School District's superintendent is retiring at the end of this school year, and Lake Placid's ought to step down or be fired, according to a petition signed by about 600 local people. Instead of hiring a new superintendent, each school board should share one with at least one neighboring school district.
The Keene school board is already going down this road. As longtime Superintendent, Principal and Business Manager Cynthia Ford-Johnston prepares to retire, the board plans to hire only a principal for its tiny K-12 school, with Mrs. Ford-Johnston filling in as a part-time superintendent and helping with next year's budget. Board member David Craig told us Wednesday that if this goes fairly well for a year or two, the board would look to share a superintendent, business manager and perhaps other staff or services with neighboring districts. What they don't want to do, Mr. Craig stressed, is merge their school district with another, or join a regional high school.
This shows a strong understanding of both community priorities and the current state of affairs education-wise. Sharing expensive things like superintendents can help communities keep their local schools.
The Lake Placid school board needs a nudge in this direction.
Any two districts that share a superintendent would together save roughly $150,000 in pay and benefits. Neither district would have to give up its identity, its sports teams, its culture, its board oversight or anything affecting students.
This begs the question: Should Lake Placid and Keene share a superintendent with each other? Maybe - one could easily supervise both districts, which together only have about 700 students - but the fact that they're in separate Board of Cooperative Educational Services districts might be an obstacle. It's worth considering, but either way, they should share with some neighbor: perhaps Keene with Elizabethtown-Lewis or AuSable Valley, and Lake Placid with Saranac Lake.
A conversation we had last week with our region's state senator, Betty Little, confirmed once again that as the state crunches to balance its own budget, it is intentionally pressuring small school districts to make their own consolidation efforts. Once they share a superintendent, Sen. Little said, school officials will start seeing the common sense in sharing more: a clerk, then a business manager, then the whole district office, perhaps some bus services, perhaps some high school teachers - but only as far as the locally elected school boards are willing to go. This is the way forward.
Sharing a superintendent is a big, difficult decision that puts the wider perspective above the local perspective. It's rarely done, and it's understandable why a small-town school board would be hesitant to make such a call. It would be even more understandable if Lake Placid schools had a good thing going with their superintendent - but they don't.
For a month-and-a-half, the board has been on notice that Randy Richards has lost the legitimacy to lead. There was the petition, and in a small community like this, when 600 people tell you to do something, you'd better do it. But also in February, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission determined (after a hearing and almost a year to mull it over) that Mr. Richards engaged in gender discrimination, retaliation and a hostile work environment against middle-high school Principal Katherine Mulderig. This is clearly conduct unbecoming of a school superintendent. Keeping him on after this has caused, in the words of Parmalee Tolkan's recent letter to the editor, "damage to morale and more importantly our students' moral health."
Yet board members instead let Mr. Richards go ahead with crafting the district's budget for the next school year. Granted, they questioned his plans, but some of those cried out for questioning. Here are two the board rejected, which make us further doubt Mr. Richards' priorities:
With Ms. Mulderig poised to sue him and the district, his original budget would have laid her off, combining her job with his own. That certainly looks like retaliation, as well as a boost in responsibility and power for someone whom the public does not trust with such things.
He proposed to pay $45,000 for a public relations service, even while eliminating teaching positions. Some board members, disappointingly, said they wished they could afford to hire PR because the district has a communications problem and bad publicity. As many politicians have learned the hard way, paying for PR can be avoided and communication breakdowns improved by routinely getting out in front of negative situations with clarity, openness and commitment to fix problems.
At this critical time, we think the people of Lake Placid and Wilmington will strongly support their school board members in making the tough decisions to part ways with Mr. Richards and to try to share a superintendent with a neighboring district. This is not the "the answer," and such a transition might be rocky at first, but it's a money-saving step that would open the door to future money-saving steps and wouldn't detract from the quality of education, or from students' and parents' school experience.
The alternatives are worse. The most popular option in a school funding crunch is to lay off teachers and staff. That hurts kids' education, puts more people out of work and makes the community less attractive to people who might move there.
Another option is to try to raise taxes more, but people can stop that at the ballot box.
This is a time and place to, as prison guard unions say, "chop at the top."