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Regional High School advocates ready for 2013 legislative session

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HEUVELTON — As Morristown, Hermon-DeKalb and Heuvelton Central schools contemplate a regional high school, administrators and state officials are preparing to take the cause to Albany.

Thomas R. Burns, district superintendent at St. Lawrence-Lewis Board of Cooperative Educational Services, said similar legislation passed the Senate in 2012 and, with pressure, may be able to clear the Assembly in 2013.

Senate Bill 7486, brought to the floor by Senator John J. Flanagan, R-Smithtown, would give local school districts across the state the ability to form regional high schools.

But Mr. Flanagan’s bill has so far failed to make it out of the Senate.

“I think that we might be more successful with legislation if it’s tailored to the specific needs of certain school districts,” said Addie J. Russell, D-Theresa.

Ms. Russell, who endorses regional high schools, said she is “absolutely willing to work to change any laws that the state has” that may prevent them.

Under current legislation, school districts may merge or send their students to another district and pay tuition.

“If you merge two central school districts, both of the school districts would cease to exist. You’d have to form a new Board of Education for the new district,” Mr. Burns said.

“You saw this wave of consolidations in the 1950s. It was shortly after the 1950s that New York state went from having 10,000 school districts to 700,” Mr. Burns said.

Looking at today’s landscape, Mr. Burns said, you just don’t see mergers happening anymore.

“When you look at the past few decades, there really haven’t been that many mergers. Maybe that mechanism isn’t as successful,” he said, adding that local communities also may want more control over their school districts than what mergers could offer.

Likewise, because Ogdensburg is a city school, Mr. Burns said, the only way for it to absorb another district is to annex it entirely.

Besides a merger or an annexation, schools may “farm out their high school students,” Mr. Burns said.

“I’ve been encouraging schools to look into tuitioning,” Ms. Russell said.

Ms. Russell said she believes one district sending high school students to another and paying tuition is an effective short-term fix to the budget problems facing many local schools.

“Our school districts need to make changes — probably faster than legislation can keep up with,” Ms. Russell said.

However, Mr. Burns cautioned that tuitioning “is not as attractive right now because state aid has been frozen for at least four years.”

“It’s less favorable for the receiving district,” said Mr. Burns, because they will not get an increase in aid money even as they see an increase in their number of students.

But a regional high school would enable districts to maintain separate boards of education, administrations, and elementary and middle schools while sending their high school students to a hub location.

In the case of Morristown, Hermon-DeKalb and Heuvelton, there are conversations about sending students to Heuvelton Central if a bill enabling regional high schools were to pass the Legislature.

Mr. Burns said there is a chance Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo will officially recommend that the Legislature give the green light to regional high schools within the next two weeks.

“The Education Reform Commission is supposed to issue a report as early as this week or next week. Regional high schools may be one of the recommendations,” Mr. Burns said.

Mr. Burns added that Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, has signaled that she supports the idea of regional high schools. Mrs. Ritchie was unavailable for comment.

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