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State lawmakers’ support of regional high schools is dubious

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State lawmakers representing the north county are split on enacting regional high school legislation despite the efforts of the region’s schools to push it forward.

“I don’t think that we actually need more legislation,” state Senator Elizabeth O’Connor Little, R-Queensbury, said last week.

Mrs. Little said she hopes to see rural school districts use existing opportunities to create efficiencies as opposed to legislating regional high schools. These existing pathways to collaboration include webinars, tuitioning and mergers.

Mrs. Little said the best solution is for districts in tough fiscal straits pay tuition for students to attend other districts in order to maintain a sound education and a balanced budget.

The trouble with regional high schools, Mrs. Little said, is “that every time we do that we lose jobs.”

This sentiment was reflected by Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell, D-Theresa.

“I don’t believe that our schools need legislation in order to start to share services and cooperate on a much larger scale,” Mrs. Russell said. “I think that there is existing precedent to allow our school districts to work together.”

This is not welcome news for Thomas R. Burns, superintendent of the St. Lawrence-Lewis Board of Cooperative Educational Services.

“Why would you not give local schools more tools in their toolbox to provide more opportunities for their students?” Mr. Burns said.

Mr. Burns said regional high school legislation was introduced in 2012. Although it failed to garner support in either the Senate or the Assembly, Senate bill 7486, introduced by Sen. John J. Flanagan, R-Smithtown, had the blessing of the state Education Department.

Mr. Flanagan could not be reached for comment.

“I find it disappointing,” Mr. Burns said of Mrs. Little’s and Mrs. Russell’s views.

Noting that Mr. Flanagan’s bill had the tacit support of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo via the state Education Department, Mr. Burns said he can’t understand why lawmakers wouldn’t be on board with it.

The governor’s education reform commission also recently delivered a series of recommendations to Mr. Cuomo, including a regional high school initiative, in order to help shore up the state’s education system, Mr. Burns said.

Mr. Burns also pointed to the $30,000 study being conducted by Heuvelton, Morristown and Hermon-DeKalb central schools about the potential cost savings of a regional high school configuration. The results of that study are due by June 30 – 10 days after the scheduled end of the 2013 legislative session.

“Given where the governor is on it and the fact that we have three local school districts that are doing a study on this, I do not understand it, and I’m not sure what level of calamity it takes for Albany to get it and take some action,” Mr. Burns said.

Assemblyman Kenneth J. Blankenbush, R-Black River, is more receptive to the regional high school concept.

“We have to start looking outside the box. Regional high schools are something that I consider to be outside the box,” he said. “When we have schools that are graduating only 26 students and our enrollment is going down, we as a north country have to take a look at all the alternatives that we have to get the best education possible for our students.”

And Senator Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, said, although she is waiting to see what the Senate leadership does, she “thinks [regional high schools] would be an option. I would be hopeful that there would be some movement on that [in 2013].”

Mr. Blankenbush said getting regional high school legislation to move forward is a matter of activism.

“Whether we can sell it, that’s the question,” he said.

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