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Banford Elementary School in Canton. Photo: Canton Central School
Banford Elementary School in Canton. Photo: Canton Central School

North Country schools face uncharted ground

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Many North Country school districts are facing uncharted territory. They're going bankrupt, and at the same time have more mandates to fulfill.

The annual North Country Symposium is focused on the state of education, and how it's affecting the rest of the community. Keynote speaker John Sipple is director of the New York Center for Rural Schools at Cornell University.

He says there are no easy answers, and that the schools are inextricably intertwined with the community - they rise and fall together.

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Reported by

Julie Grant
Reporter and Producer

Sipple says many of New York's rural schools are facing a perfect storm: Property values are dropping, the tax cap keeps them from raising taxes more than two percent, the state has cut its aid, and there are more expectations than ever. In addition, there's the expense and controversy of new teacher evaluations.

"So there's a lot of controversy, a lot of angst around how is that districts are going to be sustainable, how are they going to maintain their quality in the face of these cuts and local constraints, how are they going to provide enriched academic opportunities when you're also trying to increase class size by reducing staff and so forth."

Many North Country schools are concerned they won't survive the current struggles.

A recent survey found half of North Country schools expect to be educationally insolvent within a couple of years. And one-fourth say they'll be financially insolvent.

Sipple says even if schools can't pay the bills, they can't just go out of business, and send the students to another district.

"We have no precedent for this, we don't really know what's going to happen. If a school district was allowed to just dissolve, those children have a right to a free public education, so we need to start changing attendance boundaries for other school districts. So that's quite a legal mess, trying to figure out whose district would they would join, who gets to make those decisions. So I personally don't see the state allowing school districts to just dissolve."

School names in the North Country show a history of mergers already: Brushton-Moira, Colton-Pierrepont, Madrid-Waddington.

Now other districts in St. Lawrence County are considering whether to merge, or possibly create a regional high school.

Governor Cuomo has been encouraging mergers to reduce costs. But Sipple doesn't expect mergers to help financially struggling schools. He says mergers can increase the variety of course offerings available to students. But they don't save money.

"The state offers incentive aid to prompt school district mergers. What we find is when that state incentive aid tapers off, five years after a school district merger, we often find school districts that had been small and poor individual, are now small and poor collectively. And they're back in the same financial trouble they were in five to seven years earlier."

Plus, Sipple says mergers aren't popular in many school districts these days. People want to maintain local control and identity. Instead of full mergers, he says some communities are considering regional high schools.

"When we have a regional high school, we can maintain local elementary schools, sometimes local middle schools, and come together for the more advanced coursework for the high school students. So sometimes a regional high school is easier politically for districts to move forward on than a full merger."

But Sipple can't say what difference creating a regional high school could make.

"People often ask me, will that save money, will this improve student test scores and all the rest. We don't know. New York state does not have a rich history in regional high schools. And in fact they've been illegal. We still need legislation to be passed to create regional high schools in New York state."

Sipple expects a bill authorizing regional high schools to pass the legislature soon.

He encourages the North Country to work regionally as much as possible. He says it could help improve schools, and health care, which could attract businesses and people to the area. Higher employment increases property values, which provides more money to the schools.

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