Over the last week, there have been two informative presentations made in the Elizabethtown-Lewis Central School auditorium.
The first dealt with the economic future of the North Country and was run by the North Country Economic Regional Development Council (NCEDC). The second was a presentation on the future of school districts by Alan Pole, who started his education career as a teacher at Chazy Central Rural School and has been a consultant on several studies in shared services or the merger of districts.
In both cases, the message was similar, as both sides said it’s time to get the ball rolling to meet the needs of the taxpayers and the community at large. Whether it means developing a comprehensive plan that can be used as a guideline to work toward economic growth in the Adirondacks, bringing school boards together to open the dialogue into sharing services, or merging school districts, the time for action is now.
Yes, now is the time to draft a plan to promote the region economically as well as consolidate services between school districts that continue to see a drop in enrollment and state aid.
On the economic side, we hope that people had a chance to get to the community forum meetings held around the region over the past couple of months. Each meeting brought ideas to the council that have been used in drafting a plan that needs to be submitted to the state by Nov. 14.
Once the plans from the 10 regions are submitted, they will compete for $200 million in funding from the state for projects to help bolster the regions’ economies.
While NCEDC co-chair Garry Douglas said he was more concerned with the “stronger bond for collaboration in this seven-county region” and that “too much is made of the figure,” we encourage council members to make sure they present as solid a plan as they can to the state and focus on securing as much money as they can. In the near future, collaboration is not going to pay the bills that communities face.
As for the discussion on school districts, the fact is the merger of school districts is something that needs to be seriously considered. The Crown Point and Ticonderoga districts are studying it. Others are taking a hard look at it.
The discussion at the Elizabethtown-Lewis Central School was presented jointly by ELCS, Keene, Westport and Willsboro central schools. At more than one of the schools, sports are starting to disappear as the districts are unable to field varsity baseball, cheerleading and basketball as well as several modified or junior varsity teams. Due to the rising costs and decrease in funding, schools are balking at the former unified swimming and baseball teams that have been part of the landscape over the past years.
Classes have been trimmed, with schools eliminating a second foreign language class or other elective classes that help students be more prepared for the next chapter in life. Only one of the four schools at the meeting said that they have a business program. In all, these students are no longer gaining advantages from being in a small school; they are losing opportunities to grow, participate and progress.
Combined, these four school districts have seen almost one-fifth of their enrollment evaporate over the last decade, with studies suggesting that this trend will continue.
A combination of school districts like the Elizabethtown-Lewis-Keene or Westport-Willsboro Central Schools will save money, give students more classes and opportunities and keep extracurricular activities and sporting programs alive.
Success stories, like the North Warren Central School District, exist and should be used as a model for how such a merger could be beneficial elsewhere.
These decisions will not be easy. There is nothing that stirs more passion or sparks more controversy in a community than suggesting school closures.
But the handwriting is on the wall. The statistics don’t lie. Enrollment and state aid are going to continue to decline, forcing more of a taxing burden on less people — and even more year-round residents out of the region.
It is time we make some difficult decisions on our own, in the interest of what’s best for our children — before they are made for us by those with no vested interest at all.
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