Ogdensburg school officials are seeking a change in state law that will facilitate their working with other St. Lawrence County school districts to deal with the financial and educational insolvency confronting many of them in the next few years.
North country schools are looking at consolidations to achieve savings by combining districts to reduce administrative costs and to maintain for students a broader curriculum of electives and programs that are not feasible in smaller districts after years of steadily declining enrollment and budget cuts. However, to join with a neighboring district, Ogdensburg, in contrast to central school districts, has one option annexation of the neighboring district.
Annexation meets with resistance, though, since it would leave Ogdensburg intact while the annexed district would cease to exist. Annexation would mean a loss of identity for the annexed district.
The strong emotional and generational ties to schools that are the hub of the community combined with the possible loss of neighborhood schools serving younger students can outweigh savings from a consolidation.
A merger offers a fairer alternative, since it would create a new district with a new board and even new name, but that isnt possible for Ogdensburg under current law.
So school officials are asking to be put on the same level as surrounding districts by seeking legislation to designate them a central school district.
The other school district pretty much loses their identity. We dont think thats right, said Ogdensburg Superintendent Timothy M. Vernsey. We think we should be allowed, if we have a partner next door that would like to look into possibly merging the district, to at least have that opportunity.
Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie has introduced legislation to change Ogdensburg to a central school district to allow it to be part of the discussions that are going on.
The possible loss of state funding to Ogdensburg as a central school district is a concern of Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell, but school officials do not believe the change would cost them state aid. In fact, the state offers financial incentive with a 15-year increase in operating aid to encourage consolidations.
The redesignation would not alter any district boundaries. Any consolidation could take a couple of years and would be subject to voter approval.
St. Lawrence County districts are aggressively exploring consolidation, merger and restructuring to maintain educational programs in the face of limited state aid, property tax caps and rising district costs. Combined districts make it more affordable to offer Advanced Placement classes, more electives and other specialized services and programs for students.
Heuvelton, Hermon-DeKalb and Morristown are studying whether to establish a regional high school serving the three districts or paying tuition to have students attend one high school. A regional high school, though, also requires a change in state law. Past attempts to pass legislation permitting them have failed.
School leaders are thinking creatively. North country lawmakers should take the lead in Albany with necessary legislation.
North country school boards elected by voters in four districts are demanding action in Albany while the senators and assembly women and men representing the county obfuscate and appear to ignore the recommendations of the people elected to educate the next generation.