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State unlikely to force school mergers

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CANTON - The state is unlikely to force the area’s school districts to merge or set up regional high schools meaning local districts will be on their own when it comes to making tough choices about their futures.

That was the message Dierdre K. Scozzafava, Gouverneur, delivered Tuesday morning to about a dozen people who attended a meeting to discuss options being explored by the St. Lawrence-Lewis Board of Cooperative Educational Services region.

Ms. Scozzafava said major changes in how school districts are organized will probably have to start at the grassroots local level.

“I think solutions will come from the bottom up,” Ms. Scozzafava said. “There is a huge potential for regions and areas to come up with their own solutions.”

A former state assemblywoman, Ms. Scozzafava now serves as Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s deputy secretary for local government at the state Department of State. She was invited to speak to a citizens group that was created earlier this year to lobby for more state money for the area’s public schools.

During the hour-long session, parents and school officials relayed their worries about how staff and program cuts negatively impact students, including the loss of Advanced Placement classes and foreign language offerings at the high school level.

Ms. Scozzaffava said local school officials need to be open minded as they consider different models for educating students. Greater reliance on technology such as distance learning and on-line classes was mentioned.

“I think you have to take the triangle and turn it upside down. It’s time to think outside of the box,” she said. “I want people to be open to all sorts of ideas about how they’re offering services and what they’re offering academically.”

State officials may play a role by lifting logistical hurdles that prevent change from moving forward, she said.

“It’s important that these roadblocks and hurdles are communicated to us. We’ll try to make things happen that make sense,” Ms. Scozzafava said.

A bill that’s pending in the state Senate would provide some financial incentives to help small school districts to replace their individual high schools with a few larger, regional high schools.

The regional schools could be run by a board of education, or by BOCES, according to a bill that was introduced May 25 by state Sen. John J. Flangan, R-Smithtown, on behalf of the state Education Department.

Barbara B. Beekman, president of the Canton Central Board of Education, suggested that state funding cuts that have been made in the past several years indicate the state wants small, low-wealth schools to consolidate.

If that’s the case, the state should issue its directive sooner, rather than later, because some districts are nearing bankruptcy, she said.

“Instead of this drip, drip of less resources, let us know where you want us to be,” Mrs. Beekman said.

Canton Central School Superintendent William A. Gregory said the more crucial issue that needs to be resolved by the state is the inequity that exists between what wealthy downstate districts can offer students compared to the north country’s low-wealth districts.

Even if mergers, consolidations and shared services are pursued, he predicted that school districts will still struggle unless more state revenue makes its way northward.

Some area school districts have cut back to one foreign language in high school, while some downstate districts offer five different languages to elementary students.

“That’s the issue to me, the equity piece,” Mr. Gregory said.

Ann M. Adams, superintendent at Hermon-Dekalb Central, said her district has discussed setting up a regional high school with Heuvelton and Morristown central schools, but unless the state changes its funding incentives the idea doesn’t make sense at this point.

“The means are not in place to make it fiscally responsible,” she said. “We have nothing left to cut from our budget.”

Ms. Scozzafava said she would be better equipped to answer questions if she were joined by an official from the state Education Department. A follow-up meeting is expected to be scheduled.

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