Press-Republican

January 7, 2013

Superintendents: Fiscal changes critical to education reform

By ASHLEIGH LIVINGSTON
Press-Republican

---- — PLATTSBURGH — The New York Education Reform Commission’s report on improving the state’s education system leaves something to be desired, according to area school leaders.

“It falls far short of what we need to do and doesn’t address many of the challenges that our local schools are facing with finances,” Superintendent of Chazy Central Rural School John Fairchild said.

The recently released document lists seven preliminary recommendations for

strengthening the academic pipeline from prekindergarten through college.

Established by Gov. Andrew Cuomo last April, the Education Reform group comprises American education, community and business leaders and has been tasked with studying the state’s education system and suggesting ways to better meet the needs of students while being respectful of taxpayers.

RECOMMENDATIONS

Topping the committee’s list of recommendations are to: 

▶ Increase access to high-quality, full-day prekindergarten. 

▶ Better integrate social and health services into schools. 

▶ Restructure the school day and year to extend learning time. 

▶ Increase the innovative use of technology in classrooms.

Also suggested in the report are to:

▶ Better bridge the path from high school to college and careers. 

▶ Increase access to educational opportunities through district consolidations and regional high schools and streamline district reporting to increase fiscal transparency and accountability.

LITTLE NEW GROUND

Many area superintendents noted that the bulk of these recommendations are fairly obvious and reflect ideas that have been topics of discussion among educators for quite some time.

“I didn’t really feel like the recommendations were telling us anything new,” said Scott Osborne, superintendent of Elizabethtown-Lewis Central School.

Fairchild agreed, saying, for example, there is no doubt that early childhood education, access to social and health services and integrated technology are beneficial to students, but the question becomes, “Where’s the money for this coming from?”

“They’re all great ideas,” added James “Jake” Short, superintendent of Plattsburgh City School District, “but I get skeptical about how we’re going to pay for them.”

The committee, thus far, has not put forth recommendations for how schools should cope with unfunded mandates, rising employee health-care and retirement costs, reductions in state-aid and restrictions to the ways in which schools may generate revenue.

“What it doesn’t get to is the larger, bigger problem of how public schools are going to be financed and funded into the future,” Short said.

SMALL VS. MERGERS

In addition to financial issues, local school officials noted, some of the committee’s recommendations could prove problematic for other reasons.

The report, for instance, discusses how restructuring districts through consolidation and regional high schools could promote increased access to educational opportunities and prove more fiscally efficient.

Fairchild, however, feels that children who attend smaller schools are more likely to get individualized attention and, therefore, are less likely to fall through the cracks.

In heavily populated schools, he said, “it’s really easy for a kid to get lost.”

The committee’s consolidation recommendation, Osborne added, also overlooks how much time children in rural areas like the North Country could spend traveling to and from a regional school each day, not to mention the cost of providing transportation for such an endeavor.

“I’m not so sure that anybody is taking into consideration how sparsely populated our region is,” he said.

DISCUSSION WORTHWHILE

Still, area superintendents said they are encouraged that the committee is discussing how to better the state’s public-school system.

They agree the report is a start toward education reform.

“I applaud the commission for engaging in the conversation regarding education,” Stephen Broadwell, superintendent of Willsboro Central School, said in an email to the Press-Republican.

Short added that the committee’s report makes note of the group’s intentions to continue and expand its discussions in the future to include fiscal matters facing districts.

“I think that’s really the bigger issue,” he said.

Email Ashleigh Livingston: alivingston@pressrepublican.com