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Parents, teachers and taxpayers gather at the Ticonderoga High School gym. Photos: Brian Mann
Parents, teachers and taxpayers gather at the Ticonderoga High School gym. Photos: Brian Mann

Seeking a future for Ticonderoga's cherished public schools

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North Country Public Radio has been checking in with schools around our region that are struggling with major budget shortfalls. Many districts have seen sharp declines in state aid over the last two years.

They also face rising costs for pensions and healthcare. And now they're also trying to live within the new two percent cap on property tax increases.

Around 200 people from various St. Lawrence County school districts gathered in Canton Central's high school auditorium last night to talk about how to bring about change in the way New York distributes state aid. The Watertown Daily Times reports some suggested filing a class-action lawsuit against the current formula.

Two busloads of students and adults are planning a bus trip to Albany to lobby lawmakers later this month.

Brian Mann was in Ticonderoga for a public meeting last night, where locals rolled up their sleeves and tried to sketch out a future for their public schools.

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Reported by

Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

Ticonderoga has one of the most beautiful schools in the North Country and on this night, the old-fashioned high school gym is packed as the Ticonderoga Sentinels are facing off against Ausable Valley.

But the real action tonight is actually taking place down the hall, in a school auditorium where fifty parents, teachers and taxpayers have gathered just to talk.

"We'll do this last question and then I'll see if anyone has anything to add," says Superintendent John McDonald, who called this meeting looking for input, for guidance, as he and his staff struggle to close a massive budget deficit.

"We've identified some cuts that brings the $1.7 million dollar [shortfall] down to about $1.4 million, depending on how state aid goes," he says.

To put that in context, the shortfall is roughly a fifth the size of the total local tax levy.  And there are no easy answers.  Ticonderoga has already seen painful teacher lay-offs.

"We've had about 10 to 15 percent of our work force eliminated through attrition or laid off during the last two years."

So McDonald and his staff hand out big reams of paper – this is a paper mill town, he points out, so paper is one thing they have plenty of. 

And at tables around the room, folks start talking.  What do they value?  What’s working?  What’s not working?

"We obviously want to give the kids the best education we possibly can," says one parent. "But at the same time you have to keep in mind that people have to be able to afford it."

Conversations like this (not always so polite or productive) are going on all over the North Country. 

Schools in the region face a nasty squeeze.  In many areas enrollments are down. The economy in many small towns is still ugly. 

And the amount of aid from New York state is down sharply; more than a million dollars has been cut from Ticonderoga’s aid package.

That has parents like Phillip LaPearl worried.

"The school system here and particulary the high school is more than just a high school. It's the lifeblood of the community. It sets our kids up for their futures, as well as supporting the community as one of the largest employers of local residents," he points out.

Schools fill a lot of rolls in the North Country.  Here in Ticonderoga, half the students qualify for poverty programs, receiving free or subsidized meals.

School is where people go to hear music, to socialize, to watch a game of basketball. 

John McDonald, the superintendent, says that big vision for what a school can and should be is beautiful thing. The trick is balancing it against the actual dollars he has to spend.

"The challenge becomes when you get into times when some of those programs are seemingly not sustainable.  And we do know that there are people who are struggling to pay their taxes and keep their homes. That's where kind of the conflict comes into play."

So there are no easy answers here.  And the stakes are high – a lot of teachers are being laid off around the region and class sizes are growing.

McDonald says it may be time for North Country communities to think big about long-term solutions, looking at mergers or even the creation of county-sized school districts.

"Our school board has entered into an agreement with the Crown Point School Board to look at a merger study.  I'm not sure what the study will say, but at least we're doing the diligence to both schools' declining enrollment.  Another concept that I think the state needs to embrace is do we look at regional schools and regional school districts, as opposed to invidual districts.  Maybe that's a way to provide some savings and make the schools more efficient."

McDonald says his district expects to lose more than forty students by 2015.  That loss could grow even worse if more school staff with school-age children are let go.

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