Long Lake Central School
Superintendents and board members of the five True North school districts recently met to discuss sharing services to keep costs and taxes down while maintaining scholastic standards for local children.
The districts — Long Lake, Newcomb, Minerva, Indian Lake and Johnsburg — already share many services. Just look at two of the sports teams for proof — the Indian Lake-Long Lake Orange and the Minerva-Newcomb Mountaineers. At their April 29 meeting in the Long Lake Central School, district officials discussed their past successes and explored new ways to share.
“It’s amazing what we do with a handshake easily,” said Long Lake School Superintendent Mary Dickerson said. “It’s a nice group of people to work with.”
School officials have had an open dialogue for six years, branding themselves the True North districts, but have not met each year. This was the second year in a row that superintendents and school board members were invited. Newcomb School Superintendent Skip Hults attended the latest meeting and walked away with a renewed energy.
“I went there with my president, and we both thought it was very, very worthwhile,” Hults said. “One of the things we did realize was that we just can’t do this every couple of years and then get back together and hope to accomplish anything, that we need to do this several times a year.”
Washington County report
As state and federal aid dry up, health care and retirement costs rise, and New York’s tax cap forces school officials to make tougher decisions than ever, the seven Washington County districts decided that a new approach was needed. So they pooled their resources and published a study to look at ways to either create regional schools or consolidate and share services and resources. The Washington County School Districts Study was released in November 2012.
“As we become a more global society, the demands of the 21st century will require educational leaders, especially leaders of rural schools, to rethink delivery models and consider options beyond the traditional models that have long been used,” stated the report. “The challenge of being geographically isolated puts rural schools at a significant disadvantage. The use of technology, distance learning, and shared educational services are essential for rural schools to explore in order to provide a well-rounded and diverse education for students.”
This report’s goal was to find ways to:
•Enhance educational programs;
•improve the quality, efficiency and/or scope of current services;
•and reduce operating and/or capital expenses.
Rural schools face a unique set of challenges, according to the study, including declining enrollment and demographic changes, while trying to share services, focus on improving academic and extracurricular programs and keep tax levies in check. The report concluded that a regional school approach may not be feasible for rural school districts and that sharing services is a more realistic solution. Many of the shared service ideas in the Washington County report looked familiar to the True North school district superintendents.
“We already do a lot of shared services, and we are always improving those,” Dickerson said. “We’re sharing things that the Washington County schools are just starting to look at. Some of the topics are sharing staff, which is already occurring, special ed services, the whole state testing/grading and scoring piece we do among us. We have a common bell schedule. There’s distance learning going on. We share professional development staff trainings. We have merged sports teams. We share transportation.”
True North sharing
The agenda for the April 29 meeting listed many ways the school districts already share costs:
•Sharing of staff
•Special education services (regional approach)
•Common bell schedule
•Distance learning (DL) courses and trainings
•Professional development for staff
•Merged sports teams
•Sharing of equipment
•BOCES services — True North identity
•Regional school/community support — leveraging school aid
•Student events/activities — National Honor Society, prom, student assemblies
In some instances, all districts share services. For example, they all have the same common bell schedule.
In other instances, most of the districts share services. All schools but Johnsburg, for example, share a prom each spring.
And yet other instances, only two districts share services. For example, Indian Lake and Johnsburg shared a technology teacher this year, and Johnsburg took in an Indian Lake special education student.
“We have to continue to see how the five schools can work together to help lower costs,” said Johnsburg School Superintendent Mike Markwica. “When you have a tax cap, no longer are you creating a budget, and going out (to voters) with a budget increase as much as you’re going out with a tax levy increase.”
The 2013-14 tax levies and budgets were discussed at the meeting, as were the international student programs at the True North districts.
“Now that we’re all approved, I think we should look at this differently, a regional approach to these kids,” said Indian Lake School Superintendent Mark Brand. “Try to get them together, try to get host families together. Even tuition. We don’t want to undercut Newcomb. Say they were charging $9,000. We don’t want to charge $5,000.”
School officials also discussed creating a regional Career & Technical Education (CT) program, which is traditionally offered through BOCES. Right now, Johnsburg, Indian Lake and Minerva students must travel to Fort Edward for BOCES. Long Lake students travel to Saranac Lake. And Newcomb is too far away to make CT classes an option for students. Having a vocational program in one of the True North districts could be an option.
“I think it’s a great idea,” said Minerva School Superintendent Tim Farrell. “I’d be a bit surprised to see BOCES expand, but I don’t know. BOCES is going through a lot of the same financial issues that local school districts are going through. Their programs are shrinking just like our programs are.”
Even with the need, the True North school districts may be too small for a local vocational option.
“If you combine all of our student populations in our True North schools, it still doesn’t amount to an awful lot of kids,” Farrell said. “And as Mr. Markwica pointed out the other night, if we did have some type of North Country BOCES or VoTech program, and we specialized in building trades or boat building or marine craft, whatever it would be, whatever niche we would identify that would be purposeful, his thought was that he probably would still have to transport kids down to the Hudson Falls program because they have 20 choices.”
If a local CT program was created, funding and administration would most likely fall on the backs of the True North districts, Farrell added.
The Minerva superintendent said the latest meeting of the True North districts showed a collective concern for school financing and finding creative ways to maintain good schools in the age of the tax cap.
“A meeting like that reminds us of all the good things we are doing individually and collectively for the kids in this region,” Farrell said, “and it provides an opportunity for us to keep that door open as we continue to talk about sharing staff and creating new programs that are needed in the region but doing that in a shared way so it’s affordable.”
One of the major successes of this collaborative effort is the branding of the “True North” school districts.
“We’re getting more attention as a group than we necessarily would be as an individual school district,” said Indian Lake’s Brand. “What else can we do? That’s always out there. I’m not sure we’ve reached the limit, but we’re always looking for more ideas.”