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Regional high schools among consolidation options

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The public got its first glimpse last night of a study to deal with St. Lawrence County's declining school enrollment. The county's 18 districts lost 2,000 students in less than a decade.

The study commissioned by BOCES considers little fixes like shared services and big, controversial moves like merging districts. It also focuses on a middle, largely untested option - the creation of regional high schools. David Sommerstein reports.

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David Sommerstein
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The first of three public meetings was at Edwards-Knox school last night.  It was sparsely attended, about 50 people, perhaps because the study by a Cornell University team delivers broad options, not specific proposals to merge this or that school.

But study director Dennis Sweeney said the situation is urgent.  Student enrollment has fallen up to 25% in a decade.  And it isn’t likely to rebound.  Without change, Sweeney even deeper teacher cuts than were seen this budget year are inevitable.

There’s no other place to go.  And program will have to be diminished.  That’s the challenge is how do you keep a vital program, a program that was as good for us as it will be for our children and grandchildren with these reductions.

State aid is flat.  Health, pension, and energy costs are rising.  The legislature is poised to impose a 2% property tax cap.  Meanwhile, income and property wealth has declined in 14 of the 18 districts.  The problems are similar, or even worse across the North Country.

The study proposes some familiar answers, like sharing services.  Sweeney said sharing food services is especially promising.

You serve 14,000 meals a day.  If you save 50 cents a day, you begin to talk about some significant dollars.

The study also considers the deeply controversial possibility of consolidating school districts. 

But Sweeney spent the most time talking about creating regional high schools.  Smaller districts would send their 9th to 12th graders to the schools in the county population centers of Canton, Potsdam, Massena, Ogdensburg, and Gouverneur.  Students would have access to better arts, music, sports, and foreign language programs, and more specialty classes like AP courses.

But as people in the audience pointed out, the plan gets messy quick.  Some children already ride the bus more than an hour to school. 

Aldo Malone said people in the smaller districts would lose local control.  Say his children from Harrisville go to Gouverneur.

So now when my kids go to high school, they go to Gouverneur, am I voting for the school board members…  So I’m not voting for the people that are making the decisions on my kids.

The concept could double the size of some high schools.  That worries Edwards-Knox school board member Mandy Fuller.

A teacher knows every person in their high school.  If Johnny’s suddenly acting out, something’s going on, she’s gonna know.  And I think that closeness is something that we’ve all grown up here in the North Country [with].  I think it’s going to be something that’s very hard to let go of.

But Fuller and others here believe consolidation of some sort is inevitable.  Fuller says the signals from Albany are clear.

Obviously, something needs to be done.  The state of New York is not going to support rural schools.

Many districts in St. Lawrence County already share administrative services.  Some have eyed mergers.  A plan to merge Colton-Pierrepont and Parishville-Hopkinton was shot down by voters several years ago.  It’s resurfacing again in today’s hard fiscal times, says Colton-Pierrepont school board member Sharon Andrews.

But will they really be thrilled about the idea of mergers, regional high schools.  We’ll have to see.

The consolidation study team is holding two more public meetings, tonight at Norwood-Norfolk central schools and May 31st at Lisbon central.  Both start at 6:30pm.

The final study will be delivered this fall.  Then it’s up to school leaders to make the tough decisions for a shrinking student body.

I’m David Sommerstein, North Country Public Radio, Edwards.

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