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Nothing good comes from the north -- except foreshadowing

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If you return me to my home port, I will kiss you, mother earth. Take me back now, take me back now, to the port of my birth.

JULY 6, 2012: Don't be fooled: An “outside-the-box” idea is often nothing more than “panic in the streets” with a pretty bow wrapped around it.

For instance, St. Lawrence County schools are atrophying so rapidly that one district is proposing to scour the world to enroll foreign exchange students.

Yes, having Asians, South Americans, Europeans, et al., sitting in north country classrooms would do wonders for the world view of local kids. But this isn't about the children, of which there are fewer. It is about the tax base, of which there is not much left. Substitute “foreign exchange students” with “foreign currency students” and you will have a better sense of why everybody always says that an eroding revenue stream is the mother of invention. (And if they don't say it yet, they'll be saying it soon.)

St. Lawrence County has unraveled so fast in two years that most individual school boards have experienced a strange metamorphosis: Instead of attacking consolidation as an evil plot hatched by the St. Lawrence BOCES to kill a community's identity, they are now calling BOCES — while they still have enough money to pay the phone bill –- to ask how consolidation might work.

With its vastness and lack of manufacturing, St. Lawrence should be the petri dish for consolidation experimentation. But as anyone watching the SUNY Canton and SUNY Potsdam consolidation debacle can attest, county leaders see consolidation as mixing species, which everybody also says ain't natural.

Jefferson County school districts should take note, but they won't. With greater financial resources they will be able to put off the future for several more years — or at least until this crop of superintendents enters pension Nirvana.

But why wait? Does anybody think the financial health of our school districts will be better in 10 years?

Watertown and General Brown school districts are the most recent example of why the county should have one school district. An apartment complex is being built straddling the district boundary lines. Yet because both districts are so starved for cash, they have jointly decided to force some of the children to ride a bus for miles rather than walk to a nearby school.

But these districts are not alone. All of our districts produce examples where the status quo is served first, where boundary lines prevent common sense. One district lays off teachers while a nearby district is hiring. It should be an easy problem to solve. But instead the out-of-work teachers must go back to square one in applying for a job — let's start the tenure clock again! — instead of simply being transferred to another school 20 miles away.

The flaws are everywhere. We have so many school districts that we can't find enough members of the public to serve on school boards. We solve the problem by electing the spouses of teachers and guidance counselors who, not surprisingly, wave through salary increases for teachers and guidance counselors. And when we can't find enough spouses we then elect teachers and guidance counselors from neighboring school districts. In big letters they proclaim that there is no conflict of interest. But in the fine print there is this: when the union these teachers and guidance counselors belong to is seeking a new contract, the union will enter negotiations using as a benchmark the contract its members helped approve in the neighboring school district.

Jefferson County schools have spent the last decade bungling the future at taxpayers' expense. They have all gone off in different debt directions so that nobody wants to be stuck paying off someone else's turf field. But now is the time to begin talks in figuring out how to manage change rather than becoming the victim of change.

And the change is gonna come. Don't believe me? Just cast your eyes northward.

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