Public school leaders in Jefferson and Lewis counties have initiated a long-overdue process to evaluate consolidating school services, merging districts and alternatively examining the value of regional high schools.
The Jefferson-Lewis Board of Cooperative Educational Services will sponsor a survey to determine community acceptance of sharing extracurricular activities, administrators, support services or athletic teams.
The commitment follows several months of consultations among school boards and superintendents.
The decision comes at an opportune time given the early notice of trouble that comes from some St. Lawrence County schools whose budgets are so tight that their superintendents are alerting communities about educational bankruptcy.
The survey will provide a chance to delve more deeply into the most recent Jefferson Community College Center for Community Studies survey, which showed a substantial majority of respondents supporting consolidation of their school district.
School districts have been forced to deplete their fund balances and reduce teaching positions as state aid to education has been static or declining for five years. There is little prospect that Albany will open its treasury to dramatically increase funding.
State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli reports that the states tax collections this year are positive.
But in nearly the same breath, he warns that much of the revenue boost is a result of strong tax collections driven by taxpayers who adeptly moved 2013 income into 2012 to avoid higher 2013 federal tax rates and to pay income taxes at lower rates. Such an anomaly will not occur again this year.
The local school boards face a confluence of negative events as they attempt to provide education to a declining number of students, with reduced course offerings and fewer teachers to instruct core courses that prepare students for graduation. The plight of the districts seems to vary based upon size.
Northern Jefferson County is home to Indian River Central School, which provides top notch education to the substantial population around and at Fort Drum. Carthage does the same for the east third of the county.
But in southern and western Jefferson County, there are eight school districts trying very hard to provide quality education with declining funds. South Jefferson and Belleville Henderson share the south of the county with high schools a few miles apart.
Hounsfield and Lyme Central Schools are short distances from General Brown. LaFargeville Central School is close to Thousand Island Central, which itself is near Lyme and Alexandria Bay.
There are too many school districts in Jefferson County. Consolidation is a necessity if a community wants its children to graduate with a meaningful diploma.
BOCESs effort should provide the first stage of information gathering to build a solid plan for a community-based public education system, which then can become a demonstration project financed by the state.
BOCES and the districts must deliver a message to Albany through our Assembly and Senate delegation that we have a right to the same level of public education as the more prosperous districts downstate and that we need special help to finance consolidation.
Additional state aid just to maintain the status quo will not work. We are wasting our time hoping that the flush days of the 1990s will return.
Districts need to evaluate merger, sharing of services and consolidating schools to accomplish the common goal of improving the quality of educational opportunity.
The process now begins. BOCES needs to set a demanding schedule that protects the students who all want one thing: a high school diploma that symbolizes their preparation for a quality job or success in college.