PITY THE POOR REGENTS. All 17 of them are appointed by the state legislature and collectively exercise extraordinary powers over the course of education statewide. But recent events, most outside of their control, give the impression that the authority of the Regents has diminished in recent years, which makes you wonder whether anybody has a clear vision of what to do about education in this state.
On paper the Board of Regents has plenty of authority. It governs the state Education Department as well as the State University and every grade level from pre-K to high school senior, as well as higher education. And then there are the Regents’ other responsibilities for institutions like libraries, museums and public broadcasting as well as professional certifications. The list goes on, but you get the idea: where knowledge and the public intersect, the Regents are likely to be involved.
In addition to determining what goes on in the classroom, the Regents have a big say in how school districts operate, and that, in turn, affects our taxes. Historically, the Regents have pressed for consolidation of school districts, understanding that only by pooling resources can taxpayers afford to provide kids with an adequate education.
There are still people alive who can remember a time in the last century when formal schooling legally ended at the 8th grade, because that’s all the education a rural town or village could afford to provide. Back then, if you wanted a high school education, you had to take the train to Hudson or travel to Chatham or another community with its own high school. As the fortunes of the nation and the state rose that unequal educational system was replaced by central school districts. Six of them now serve almost all of the county.
The boundaries of most of those districts have remained fixed for decades, and it seems like they’ve existed forever. But the Taconic Hills Central School District, 40 or so years ago was formed from a district that served the Roe Jan region and another district, Ockawamick, that served Claverack and vicinity. School district lines aren’t sacred or rooted in history. They reflect the needs of a particular time. And once again the times have changed.
That’s why the Ichabod Crane Central (ICC) School District got serious about plans to merge with the Schodack District in southern Rensselaer County. Chatham and New Lebanon were tentatively discussing their own plan to merge. But when the consultants hired to assist with the ICC-Schodack merger calculated that school tax rates in the ICC district would go up if the two districts combined, the air rushed out of that plan quicker than an untied balloon.
As these two local merger plans were unraveling, the Board of Regents released a memo stating the obvious: merger efforts have stalled statewide. There hasn’t been a school district merger in years. So the Regents threw in the towel on mergers and embraced a new tactic, urging financially strapped districts to create consolidated high schools.
The latest plan would have local districts maintain control of their elementary and middle schools, choosing one of two options for a shared high school: use the BOCES system to run the high school or, have one district operate the high school–there would have to be at least three districts in this scheme–with the others paying the operating district a fee.
They mean well, but the idea smells musty and out of touch with the property tax crisis faced by so many communities. It begs the question why, if whole mergers go nowhere, half-mergers have any better chance. And it exposes the essential weakness of any cost cutting plan from the Regents: no matter how well intentioned, the Regents can’t create fundamental change. Only the legislature and governor can do that.
There are steps the Regents can take. Rather than prescribing another set of magical, top-down solutions, the Regents could listen to what taxpayers and local educators believe we can do to fix the long-term funding problems of districts in small, rural areas. That might require changing some laws and relaxing some regulations, and maybe making some groups unhappy. It might also require shifting more of the burden of funding education from the local property tax to the income tax.
Whatever it takes, the state needs to foster reasonable experiments designed to save money and improve education. The Regents may not have power, but they have prestige and they should use it to open up the state to new ideas that don’t originate in Albany.