North Country public schools under siege: 50% of superintendents fear educational 'insolvency' within two years
Wednesday, December 5, 2012 - 12:00 pm

By CRAIG FREILICH

Half of North Country school superintendents believe their schools will be “educationally insolvent” within two years – more than double the rate among school leaders elsewhere in the state.

And 25 percent of North Country superintendents say their district will face “financial insolvency” within 24 months, a far greater percentage than their peers downstate.

“Like the Titanic, I think we’ve hit the iceberg but people don’t feel the water yet,” said St. Lawrence-Lewis BOCES Superintendent Tom Burns.

“There will be a point with some districts soon when they can no longer afford to give a student everything one needs to be college- or career-ready, and not even meet requirements for graduation,” said Norwood-Norfolk Central School Superintendent Elizabeth Kirnie. “They will be educationally bankrupt.

They were reacting to a new survey of school superintendents across the state and a recent meeting between a number of St. Lawrence County superintendents and James C. Dawson, the North Country representative from the state Board of Regents.

Birnie wonders why there is no outcry rising from businesses and colleges about a looming collapse of public education in rural New York, since they will be relying on the graduates of the future to run their institutions.

And Burns believes the state school aid distribution formula is so out of whack that it is “getting to be a civil rights issue.”

But a consensus is building that the crisis is real and that the time to get the message out to the governor and state legislators is now.

Kirnie said when she and colleagues had meetings last week with Dawson, “we were waiting for the good news” -- hoping, really – “and right now there is none.” She said Dawson predicted that “on the order of 170 school districts in the state will no longer be educationally or financially viable within two years, some sooner.”

Burns feels it could actually be higher.

“The concern is that with the complexity of this data that there could be schools not on their list that could be in trouble,” Burns said.

“What does it mean?” Kirnie said, expressing real dismay. “But people say, ‘A school district can’t go bankrupt.’ But we’ve just been told the state is not prepared to step in and rescue them.

“These are concepts we’re wrestling with, and we cannot make sense of the situation. And we’re not alone. We don’t know the answers, but we know we’re on a dangerous path,” Kirnie said.

Said Burns, “We’ve really just started to do a good job of informing people of the crisis and what we can do about it.”

“The governor is a strong leader, but we’ve got complete silence on that front, from legislators and the governor,” said Burns.

A visit to Canton last week from Dr. Rick Timbs of the Statewide School Finance Consortium has prompted the lighting of new signal fires in the North Country. He is foremost among those who are raising the alarm about the growing crisis, a word he is not reluctant to use to describe the situation schools are facing.

Timbs made presentations both to the public and the gathering of county school superintendents, prying open school aid formulas and other measures the state has been using, revealing that some of those measures are actually working to make the school aid situation worse for the schools that need help the most.

“The growing gap between wealthy and poor districts is getting to be a civil rights issue,” said Burns.

“We see that since the recession, the budgets have been driving more and more money away from poor districts. It’s regressive.”

He said that is a disadvantage to students in poor districts who want an education, and want to go to college.

“The poorer districts have had to drop things like advanced placement classes, music and so on. A parent will say, ‘My student ought to be able to go to the same college as someone from a wealthy district,” but when the students submit their transcripts, who’s going to be admitted first?”

Adding tinder to the fires is the report in November from the state Council of School Superintendents of an online survey of its members on school fiscal matters. It shows great and growing concern that their districts are approaching fiscal and educational insolvency, particularly in the North Country.

Superintendents of rural districts around the state were most likely to expect their schools to be unable to pay their bills within the next two years, the survey said.

By a wide margin, superintendents in the North Country region -- St. Lawrence, Franklin, Jefferson, Lewis, Hamilton, Essex, and Clinton counties -- were most likely to foresee the possibility of financial insolvency and educational bankruptcy in their district’s near-term future:

• North Country superintendents feel the most immediate threats, the survey showed: a full quarter of North Country superintendents who responded said that within two years, given current trends, they were afraid their districts might not be able to pay financial obligations, compared with nine percent of superintendents statewide. Statewide, five percent of districts reported they are already unable to fund mandated instructional and other student services.

• “Educational insolvency”: Fully half of North Country schools leaders say that within two years, given current trends, they will no longer be able to fulfill their educational missions. Their districts may become unable to fund all state and federal mandated instruction and student services.

• Seventy-four percent of North Country superintendents believe extra help for students who need it will be negatively affected by their declining school budgets, the highest negative share for any service in any region. The priority for new spending among superintendents in the state, as it was in the last survey the year before, is to get extra help for students who need it.

The survey reveals concern that reductions in personnel and programs are resulting in more students per classroom, less core instruction in elementary schools, and less extra help for students who need it. Other cuts are forcing deferral of maintenance and equipment purchases, among many other negative effects.

All this is coming at the same time that schools are working to teach new, higher core standards for students under the federal Race to the Top programs, and then testing students with increasing frequency, with the intention of measuring progress. That is taking more time away from real instruction, many teachers are saying, and costing still more money.

One upstate rural school superintendent is quoted in the survey report as saying, “We are at our breaking point. Classrooms are full, 27 -30 students in most 7-12 classrooms and 19-24 students in elementary classrooms. We have cut all the low hanging fruit, and climbed the tree for the rest. Our next step is to start cutting off branches, which means we will be cutting off chunks of the learning we yield as an institution.”

And from another upstate rural superintendent:

“We are not meeting the state and federal requirements for academic intervention services now, particularly at the high school level. We are straining to provide the necessary resources for our elementary and middle school children, because we know that in the long term children will not be successful without emphasis on early literacy. We have consciously chosen to forestall fiscal disaster by cutting everything possible and being out of compliance with older children.”

The survey also indicates that superintendents believe the “easy” cuts to budgets were made years ago and that any more cuts will mean real damage to the educational mission of schools.

The consensus among superintendents in the survey seems to be that much more cutting will result in an inability to meet state and federal requirements, such as those regarding special education.

The survey can be seen at New York State Council of School Superintendents web site at www.nyscoss.org/img/news/news_m4u1j66zda.pdf.

There is more information on Timbs’s Statewide School Finance Consortium web site at www.statewideonline.org/.