SARANAC LAKE - The superintendent of the Brushton-Moira and St. Regis Falls school districts encouraged Lake Placid and Saranac Lake school board members Wednesday to keep open minds about the prospect of sharing a superintendent.
"Be honest with each other, and be open," Beverly Ouderkirk said. "Don't pre-judge."
Ouderkirk was invited to Wednesday night's Saranac Lake school board meeting to give a first-hand account of her work over the past year as the shared superintendent at Brushton-Moira and St. Regis Falls. Lake Placid school board President Mary Dietrich and board member Herb Stoerr were also on hand for the meeting.
Beverly Ouderkirk, the superintendent of the Brushton-Moira and St. Regis Falls school districts, talks with Saranac Lake and Lake Placid school board members Wednesday night.
(Enterprise photo — Chris Knight)
The discussion comes as both the Saranac Lake and Lake Placid school districts have pending superintendent vacancies, which has led to some talk of them sharing a superintendent. The two boards are planning a joint meeting next month to discuss the possibility.
Ouderkirk described some of the logistics of what it's like to work for two districts, along with what she felt were the pros and cons of the shared position.
Ouderkirk said her salary is split between the two districts, each of which is saving $80,000 by sharing the position. She said she splits her time evenly between the two, even though Brushton-Moira's enrollment is more than twice that of St. Regis Falls. When the arrangement was first being discussed, she said there was some talk of having her divide her time based on enrollment.
"The reality is, it isn't as simple as the enrollment," Ouderkirk said. "There are issues that happen in each of the districts, and it doesn't matter where I am if something comes up. The other thing is, in today's technology age, you don't have to be at a given desk to deal with that district's issues."
Ouderkirk said the Brushton-Moira and St. Regis Falls school boards have been holding once-a-month joint meetings. She was asked by Saranac Lake school board member Terry Tubridy about the challenges of dealing with two different school boards.
Ouderkirk said it hasn't been a big problem for her because she's worked in 10 different school districts during her career and with dozens of different school board members. This is the first time she's ever answered to 16 board members at one time, but she said, "It's one of the things I actually enjoy.
"It's interesting to watch a group that kind of thought, 'This is an impossible thing,' because they remember all the elbowing on the basketball court and they remember all the rivalry. But it's been amazing to watch them."
Ouderkirk said the superintendent partnership has led to other sharing between the districts. They now share a business office, which Ouderkirk said has saved a combined $176,000. They also share teachers and have discussed educational programs and planning joint professional-development programs.
"We're starting to do some things that are really having an impact on the classroom," she said. "One of the other things I love about the experience is the chance to see what's really good in either of the districts and say, 'That's not happening over here; let's plant that seed.' They're open to it, and we're growing as a result of it."
But Ouderkirk added that, "It's not all peaches and cream." She said crafting two different school budgets at the same time was a challenge, and the reaction among teachers and staff to sharing a superintendent has been mixed.
Ouderkirk also admitted she hasn't had as much one-on-one contact with students, staff and parents as she would like because of the demands of the shared job. It's a challenge to be present at athletic and community events in both school districts, she added.
Ouderkirk has agreed to continue as the shared superintendent for the St. Regis Falls and Brushton-Moira school districts until the end of the upcoming school year. The two boards will decide in September whether to return to having their own superintendents or to continue sharing one.
Ouderkirk also noted that the two districts have applied for a state grant to study the possibility of merging.
Before wishing the Saranac Lake and Lake Placid boards good luck, Ouderkirk closed by saying that mergers and shared superintendents are not the answer to what ails public education.
"I think they may be a step in a process, a phase that may be useful to you," she said. "But I think what's going to be the most important to you is these kinds of conversations. In my 50-some years in public education, the collective brain can do some amazing things."
School board President Debra Lennon thanked Ouderkirk for her advice.
"Your contribution here this evening has been extremely helpful, and it's certainly gotten the conversation going," she said.
The Lake Placid school board members present for the meeting said they're ready for a dialogue with their counterparts in Saranac Lake.
"I feel the stars are aligned," Stoerr said. "Saranac Lake is looking for a superintendent. We are looking for a superintendent. Those opportunities don't happen very often."
"What I heard was, it works, and that it does bring about significant savings," Dietrich told the Enterprise after the meeting. "It takes compromise. And two school districts working together - I don't think that's an impossible feat to have happen. You have to be open. You have to be honest. I think that's what I took away."
The Saranac Lake school board has invited Franklin-Essex-Hamilton Board of Cooperative Educational Services Superintendent Stephen Shafer, who helped to coordinate the shared superintendent between Brushton-Moira and St. Regis Falls, and members of those two districts' school boards to attend its Aug. 22 meeting.
The Saranac Lake and Lake Placid board members present Wednesday night also agreed to tentatively schedule a joint meeting at 5:30 p.m. on Sept. 5 in the Petrova School library in Saranac Lake. Tupper Lake Central School District officials will also be invited to participate in the discussion.