Editorial: Can we afford all our tiny school districts?

| Adirondack Daily Enterprise

With the start of school little more than a week away, Saturday’s North Country Living section will contain a feature story on some of the state’s smallest school districts, located in the sparsely populated Adirondack Park. It’s interesting to learn about the creative ways they adapt to their small enrollment and the ways they see their small size as an advantage, but it’s also important to put this in perspective.

New York continues to lead all other states in education spending per student, and the gap is rising, according to a recent report by the fiscally conservative and widely respected Empire Center for Public Policy. Per-pupil spending in our state is $21,206 — 86 percent above the U.S. average. As proud as we may be of New York’s quality of education, it isn’t 86 percent better than the U.S. average. It’s hard to argue we’re getting our money’s worth, and that isn’t fair to taxpayers, especially since many of them don’t even use school services.

New York’s higher teacher salaries and benefits were the main reason for the high spending, the Empire Center said. We’ll wrestle with that later; for now, we’re focusing on another contributing factor more particular to the rural North Country — small school districts.

A school really is the heart and activity hub of a small community — that has been driven home in our long experience in the North Country. But does each small-town school have to be its own district? We think many such schools would serve the community at least as well with a principal instead of a superintendent, or if they shared maintenance, bus and food services.

Each district must have its own administrators, who are often its highest paid employees. As you’ll read in tomorrow’s feature, eight tiny districts in the central Adirondacks team up to share many things, such as technology teachers, sports, school psychologists and even proms. But they don’t share superintendents. Each has to do its own budget and paperwork, which takes a well-trained business staff. When you have all that for just a couple hundred students, it’s inefficient.

Merging or more sharing could also bring opportunities such as foreign languages, sports, music or art programs, which are hard for tiny districts to provide.

In theory, the Board of Cooperative Education Services already offers the platform for school district sharing, but BOCES charges so much for its services that local officials generally say it’s not worth it.

That leaves district mergers as an option — not in every case, but worth considering.

In general, residents of these tiny districts like them and choose to keep them. Every year, their voters uphold the status quo with the school board members they elect and the budgets and capital projects they approve. We know that if you ask someone from Keene or Long Lake if they want their school district merged with a neighboring one, you’ll get a quick rebuff.

They pay for them too. In some of these smallest districts, local taxpayers cover roughly 90 percent of the costs, whereas the state pays more than half of many larger districts’ budgets. Then again, it’s worth asking how few wealthy second home owners are here in May for the school budget votes.

Sometimes people say no to consolidation because one district or the other would have to pay higher taxes in the short term — even though they’d likely go down over time. That’s reportedly why, in 2014, voters rejected a merger between the tiny Northville and Mayfield school districts, just 10 miles apart on the Adirondack Park’s southern border.

Another reason may be jobs. There aren’t many in small Adirondack towns, but schools offer good ones. The efficiencies we’re talking about here would eliminate some of them.

But on the other hand, people adapted as state-recommended centralization merged school districts in the 20th century. That’s how the large Saranac Lake Central School District came about.

To get this conversation going further, we looked for where, if anywhere, a case could be made for school district mergers. We checked the enrollment of every district in the North Country and how far apart some of the smaller ones are. We also looked at a 1950s state plan for reorganizing school districts: which of its recommendations were enacted, and which weren’t.

We’ll tell you all about that in tomorrow’s editorial.

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