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If the state is going to mandate, why don't they just do it?... just tell us where they want us to be, and let us work on getting there.

Strapped schools consider joining forces

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Some North Country schools looking for ways to save money have started talking about merging or creating regional high schools.

Parents and school officials from Canton Central, Potsdam Central and other districts met with a representative from Governor Cuomo's office yesterday. They wanted to know what role the state would play in district mergers. Julie Grant reports.

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Julie Grant
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Last summer, the St. Lawrence-Lewis BOCES released a study about how schools around the region could consolidate, reorganize and share services. When state leaders signed the final New York budget this year, it became clear that some North Country districts were going to have to take the recommendations in that study seriously. 

Like many school superintendents, Canton Central's Bill Gregory had a tough year.  Parents in his district led a group to try and get more money from the state, and to change the school funding formula.  Now Gregory is in the process of cutting 26 teachers.  He says it’s not good for the students, “Across the board, we’re going to see increases in class sizes, so that eliminates or reduces our ability to give individual attention to students.”

Today he’s holding a copy of the BOCES school consolidation study, as he walks into a room with about a dozen other local school leaders and parents who are ready to talk with the Cuomo administration about moving forward with mergers.

Dede Scozzafava is Cuomo’s liaison to local governments.  She represented St. Lawrence and Lewis Counties in the state assembly for more than a decade. Scozzafava sat at the table, and explained there is no state blueprint for consolidation. She said, “I think solutions are going to come from the bottom up.  And as much as people like to say the only way this is going to happen is if the state imposes it, I think there is huge potential for regions and areas to be able to come up with ideas and solutions, just like you’ve been looking at doing here.”

But there was concern about what mergers would mean for students, and for the operation of school districts.  Barbara Beekman is a school member in Canton Central.  She doesn’t want to waste time finding local solutions, only to be undermined later by the state. Beekman said, “We can spend a lot of time getting buy in from people, but if the state is going to mandate, why don’t they just do it  instead of this trickle of resources?  I wish they would just tell us where they want us to be, and let us work on getting there.”

Scozzafava says the state will play a role in lifting logistical hurdles that prevent change from moving forward.  For example, she says regional high schools aren’t even authorized in most parts of the state.  Scozzafava there is legislation to allow them statewide.

Other concerns came from parents who were worried that their children would endure longer bus rides if the small local schools are merged into one large, central school. Mark Dion is a parent and coach in the Norwood-Norfolk district.  He’s concerned that by pooling sports teams into one district, the students will have to compete with larger, wealthier school districts. “It’s hard to compete, because we don’t have the numbers, and we don’t have the money……kids get in trouble and do stupid stuff,” said Dion.

But Scozzafava sees another side to mergers.  She says a central, better funded school might serve students better, and said, “I think it’s too bad that in many of our districts in NNY, we are lucky to offer one foreign language, when offer three to four downstate.  We have to find the capacity to be able to offer students a wide range of academic changes, and I think we have to find a way to be able to do that.”

The elephant in the meeting room was funding.  Some district leaders said they’ve cut so far into their fund balances, they don’t have the money to move forward with mergers.  Scozzfava suggested they all meet again soon, along with the NY department of education and other state officials.

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