Don’t merge, combine high schools

Regents off new plan, seeing little future for merging districts

GHENT–The New York State Board of Regents issued a memo in late April noting that school district mergers have “slowed to a standstill,” and “differences in wealth and tax rates make mergers difficult.”

Those observations come as no surprise school officials in the Chatham and New Lebanon districts who abandoned preliminary merger talks earlier this year. Similarly, plans by the Ichabod Crane Central School District to merge with the Schodack District were effectively scuttled when the ICC school board learned last month that residents of their district would face higher school taxes if the two districts combined.

So now the Regents have come up with a new twist on efforts to cut costs and improve public education through consolidation: maintain traditional districts but have them share a high school.

“As districts experience fiscal difficulties, high school becomes the most expensive program to maintain and operate,” said Jim Baldwin, Ed.D., district superintendent of Questar III BOCES, in a recent phone interview. “If districts have the opportunity to come together and share that expense, they would save money and be able to sustain a variety of opportunities in high school,” he said.

The BOCES systems–an acronym that stands for Board of Cooperative Educational Services–provide services like special education and vocational training on a regional basis. Now the Regents, the state Education Department and the legislature have embraced a somewhat similar approach for high schools.

In their memo of April 20, 2012, the Regents said, “The economic recession and student enrollment declines have reduced educational opportunities in some districts, especially for secondary school students seeking advanced course work. For the past three years, state aid has been frozen or reduced,” forcing school districts to make cuts, including in educational programs.  And the Regents don’t see the financial crisis facing school districts getting better any time soon, a situation they fear may lead districts to make cuts that jeopardize a “sound, basic education.”

“A district can reach a point of no return, when it doesn’t have the critical mass it needs to operate a high school program, or any program,” said Mr. Baldwin. “It’s maintaining buildings and a system that doesn’t support the kind of educational opportunities it needs to provide to students.”

The Regents also note that “communities are reluctant to give up the local control and identity of their districts” through merger. A school district can be the “hub” of a small rural community, which fears the consequences of closing its school. But the Regents, whose members are appointed by the legislature, believe that “residents may not be as reluctant about a combined secondary school” if it allowed them to preserve the identity of their elementary programs and provide more opportunities for secondary students, the memo says.

As the Regents see it, the potential benefits include: economies of scale, with full classes; Advanced Placement and college credit course work; enhanced electives; more choice in foreign languages; student internships; and career and technical training.

A regional high school would also offer relatively small classes and a culture familiar to the student.

The Regents proposal would allow three or more school districts to implement a regional secondary school while each district retained its separate status. The Regents propose two models, one in which a participating school is the host district, the other in which BOCES operates the regional secondary school.

Both models would require:

*Approval by the boards of the participating districts and adoption by district voters of a resolution authorizing the plan

*Allowing employees displaced from the sending districts the right to positions in the regional secondary school

*Use of existing facilities wherever possible

*Having the sending school districts provide pupil transportation to the regional secondary school

A plan would include a contract for a minimum of five years. The contract would spell out all the costs and savings. Each sending district would pay tuition to the host district or BOCES, offset by state aid.

In the state Senate, bill S07486 is similar to the Regents’ outline, citing the reasons for regional high schools and proposing a process for achieving the change.

In the Assembly, bill 8002B addresses the possibility of regional high school(s) in three counties in New York’s southern tier.

“School district mergers have tax and distance issues,” said Assembly member Didi Barrett (D). “Regional models or more open-ended options, such as sharing programs, become part of the discussion. We can’t shut the door on anything right now. It’s important to look at options for schools that are viable for all.”

State Senator Steve Saland (R), whose district includes all of Columbia County, could not be reached for comment by press deadline.

“The state is very interested” in regional high schools, said Mr. Baldwin. “Whether the public is willing to implement a significant change is what’s at issue here,” he said. “We’re grappling with what school districts will look like over the next 10 to 20 years.”

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