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Report recommends regional high school for three St. Lawrence County districts

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CANTON — Creating a regional school at Heuvelton Central School for grades seven to 12 has emerged as the most viable option for three of St. Lawrence County’s smaller school districts.

About 150 people attended a two-hour presentation Thursday that outlined merger options for Hermon-DeKalb, Heuvelton and Morristown central schools. Like most north country schools, those districts face dwindling revenue sources that have forced staffing and program cuts over the past several years.

Philip M. Martin, a consultant from Educorps, Albany, presented his findings in a 74-page tuitioning/merger study report during a meeting held at the St. Lawrence-Lewis Board of Cooperative Educational Services administration building. School board members from all three districts attended, joined by dozens of citizens.

Creating a regional school for grades seven to 12 that would preserve all three districts for the lower grade levels emerged as the most feasible plan, according to Mr. Martin’s study.

“This is groundbreaking,” Mr. Martin said. “I don’t think anyone else in the state is developing a working model of a regional high school.”

Although state legislation does not currently exist to allow a regional high school, the study may help persuade state lawmakers to establish such a mechanism, he said.

“There is proposed legislation, and I know from reviewing it that it certainly looks more promising,” he said.

The regional school would be housed in Heuvelton, which is centrally located among the three districts and has space available to accommodate the additional students, according to the report. This year the three districts have a total of roughly 570 students in grades seven to 12.

That option would be cost-effective for all three districts, partly because the number of teaching positions could be reduced from 50.4 to 38, according to the report.

A regional high school could operate in two ways. Under one scenario, a new independent school district would be created with its own board of education and superintendent. The other scenario would have the new district operate under the auspices of BOCES.

Besides saving money, Mr. Martin said, a regional high school would provide the opportunity to expand course offerings, elective classes and extracurricular activities for students.

Robert G. Holland, a resident of the Hermon-DeKalb district, questioned how opportunities for students would expand if the number of teachers declines and classroom space has to be shared.

“I just don’t see how these two things coincide with each other,” said Mr. Holland, a retired BOCES teacher. “We’re trying to push kids into a smaller space. It sounds like a contradiction to me.”

Thomas A. Nichols, a Heuvelton school board member, said he was concerned that incentive aid the state will provide for mergers would only be a short-term fix that won’t solve long-term financial problems.

Kellie Marcellus, a Hermon-DeKalb school board member, inquired whether Heuvelton has enough gymnasium, auditorium and cafeteria space for additional students and their families. Heuvelton Superintendent Susan E. Todd said she felt her school facilities are large enough.

Merging the three districts into a single district was among the six options studied in the report.

This scenario would generate an estimated $22.4 million in state incentive aid over a 14-year period. A drawback of that option is each community would lose its identity as a separate school district operating its own elementary schools.

Another option involves having Hermon-DeKalb and Morristown pay tuition to have their students attend Heuvelton. This scenario would be financially beneficial for Heuvelton and Morristown, but not for Hermon-DeKalb, which would lose $1.75 million in foundation aid.

Different true value property tax rates among the three districts is another issue that has to be addressed if the districts pursue reorganization.

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