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Educators  and community leaders talk about how to collaborate. Photo: Sarah Harris
Educators and community leaders talk about how to collaborate. Photo: Sarah Harris

Will community partnerships save North Country schools?

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The 2014-2015 New York State budget grants an additional $1.1 billion to schools. It sounds like a lot of money.

But many North Country schools are still struggling financially. They're not getting the state aid they need. They've cut staff and classes. And next year, many schools still have will have to dip into their fund balances to pay for programs. Yesterday at St. Lawrence University, educators and community leaders came together at an annual gathering called the North Country Symposium. This year, they talked about how to keep schools and the economy strong.

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Reported by

Sarah Harris
Reporter and Producer

Alexis Widener is a senior at Huevelton Central School. And she’s no stranger to budget cuts.

"We’ve seen that with our school there was a lot of classes cut and classes are getting bigger, the one-on-one time with teachers is being cut."

Alexis is headed to college in the fall.  She’s gotten in Clarkson. But she’s not sure  she wants to stay in the region, because at the end of those 4 years, there’s no guarantee of a job. 

"I think there’s not as many opportunities, because I want to go in for business. So being around here, the need for it isn’t high. So I don’t want to not be able to pay back all the college loans that are very expensive."    

This is what North Country educators and professionals are concerned about here - the link between schools and the economy.

Good schools mean students can get good jobs and get into college. Good schools make a community attractive to employers and professionals. That generates business and builds the economy.

Bill Murray is president of CITEC, a business and manufacturing consulting agency in Potsdam. He says North Country employers are looking for skilled workers. 

"The number one challenge when I walk around and I meet with business owners and production managers, and so forth, and I ask them, what’s the number one thing that keeps you up at night and the answer is: trained work force. Finding the workforce with the skillsets, both soft skills and hard skills, to fill the jobs that they have."

School districts grouped by Need/Resource Capacity. Map: NYSED
School districts grouped by Need/Resource Capacity. Map: NYSED
But many North Country schools are trying to hang on to the programs that teach those skills. A lot of districts are in dire financial straights, in large part due to something called the gap elimination adjustment. Essentially, schools have to help pay back state budget deficits, instead of getting increased state aid. They’ve had to cut staff and programs. They’re knee deep in implementing Common Core. And they have to do more with less.

And this is where the community comes in.

Maybe partnerships with local organizations and businesses could provide experiential learning and job training that students need and that schools are struggling to fund. 

Bill Murray says that dialogue is just beginning.

"And in the old world employers and educators didn’t communicate. They were in their own silos. That is just starting to break down now."

Laura Foster is director of the Frederic Remington Art Museum in Ogdensburg. She hopes the museum can provide a rich, engaging way for students to learn about art.

"We are particularly hoping to find ways to serve the core curriculum through the musuem’s art and literature holdings. And I want to learn more about how to do that."

Susan Todd is superintendent of Huevelton Central School district.

She says the North Country has a lot to offer.

"But if we don’t have strong school districts, we’re going to find it difficult to draw people here, which of course when we draw people here. So I think this is eye-opening for a lot of people to realize that if our schools fail, it’s only going to get worse as far as our economy here in the North Country."

Todd says North Country schools have to start thinking outside the box about their programming. Collaboration, she says, is how they’ll survive.   

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