A presentation to three St. Lawrence County school districts on the pros and cons of different restructuring possibilities was a helpful meeting that provided residents with the type of data needed to make an informed judgment about the best course to take in the years ahead to reduce costs.
Consultant Philip M. Martin updated Heuvelton, Hermon-DeKalb and Morristown residents on a study that began by examining a regional high school serving the three districts but has expanded to include consolidation, which comes with a huge financial incentive.
Combining the three districts into a new one could bring in $22 million more than the separate districts could expect now over a 15-year period. But it would come at another price the loss of identity since it would mean a new name, administration and school board to oversee the single entity.
A regional high school for grades seven through 12 at Heuvelton Central School, though, would preserve district and community identity while reducing staff and costs as the three districts contend with a 33 percent enrollment decline in a 25-year-period, limits on property taxes and falling state aid. A regional high school would reduce staff by almost 25 percent.
Schools, though, are operating under time constraints. There is no legal framework allowing districts to create regional high schools, and legislation authorizing them has been stalled in the Legislature. Consolidation, which is subject to referendum, would take at least two more years, so neither course presents an immediate solution.
A third possibility is for Morristown and Hermon-DeKalb to pay tuition for their students to attend Heuvelton.
The three districts are not the only ones facing unpopular choices. The Gouverneur school district plans to close an elementary school, while the dire financial situation in the General Brown school district has school officials considering a merger with another school district. Superintendents in half of the 32 districts in Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties fear their districts will be insolvent in five years. And three years ago, Mr. Martin studied possible regional high schools for 11 Wayne County districts, which chose to seek savings through shared services.
The choices, however, are all long-term solutions that offer little help for cash-strapped school districts struggling to fund even basic educational programs in the next school year. But the broad public discourse is needed to reach a consensus on a way forward while maintaining a quality education for their children.