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Saving schools

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Throughout the expansion of Fort Drum from a lazy summer training camp to the nation’s foremost center for training and housing America’s soldiers, the community has learned that its education system far exceeds school systems around the country. Soldiers and their families generally express appreciation for the schools and their New York rigor. Over the last 13 years, the Jefferson Community College Center for Community Studies’ annual survey has reflected that pride, with substantially more people viewing the schools as improving rather than in decline.

That abruptly changed in 2013, when the survey reported that the number of people perceiving a decline in the quality of education equaled those who said the schools were better. Until 2013, the ratio of better to worse was never less than two to one. Seven times since 2000, three times as many respondents rated the schools as better rather than worse.

There is good reason for this dramatic change in attitude — the fiscal challenge of this decade has impacted school districts more than any other agency of government. The costs of education are almost entirely made up of personnel expenses. During the decade, the financial markets collapsed, putting the New York state pension fund under pressure, the upstate economy soured, and the state reduced aid to local school districts. That left school boards with the unpalatable requirement to reduce their largest cost — teachers.

Fewer teachers means bigger classes, fewer elective courses, fewer in- and after-school activities. It does not take long for parents to rebel against such change, and the survey confirms that.

Despite the glum news, the survey shows satisfaction with the preparation of students for jobs in the economy of the future.

However, one school district is exempt from these pressures. Indian River enjoys enormous federal aid to provide the money required to educate the children of military families. Other school districts receive some similar aid, but not in the volume that keeps Indian River’s local tax levy the envy of every other district in the county.

North country school leaders in St. Lawrence County have begun to predict “educational bankruptcy” as they keep reducing the size of the teaching corps.

Consolidation is a strategy for ameliorating these pressures. In St. Lawrence County, there is a serious look at creation of regional high schools, which would pool students and teachers, providing for education opportunity. The Canton and Potsdam school districts are considering merger.

A look at the school districts in Jefferson County is instructive. Northern Jefferson County is served by only one district — Indian River. Eastern Jefferson county has one district — Carthage. Southern Jefferson County has three districts and the western half of the county has four districts. That is too many districts eating up too many resources needed to provide appropriate education.

The survey for the second time asked the question about sharing services and consolidation. And for the second year in a row, a substantial majority said school districts should consider merging with their neighbors. Only 24 percent rejected the notion. Support for merger is heaviest in the lower age groups. More than 76 percent of respondents 18 to 29 years old supported the concept.

Even more respondents support the sharing of services such as food, administration and transportation between districts, with only 8 percent or respondents saying no.

The JCC survey demonstrates that the community is far ahead of the thinking process of school boards and superintendents across the county. Jefferson County appears ready for a serious discussion about consolidation in order to stop the erosion of our schools. The school boards and Board of Cooperative Educational Services should heed the results of the JCC survey and initiate the process to prevent educational bankruptcy.

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