May 8, 2013

Innovation starts at the top


---- — ST. REGIS FALLS — Donna Andre worked at St. Regis Central School most of Tuesday, then headed to Brushton-Moira Central as evening approached for meetings there.

She’s superintendent of both schools — the first districts in New York state to share a top administrator.

“Each community is uniquely different, with special qualities about both places. I try to keep all St. Regis Falls in one place and Brushton-Moira in another,” Andre said. 

“That helps me to stay organized.”

The shared administrative position saves $76,414 for Brushton-Moira and $81,148 for St. Regis Falls this year. 


That innovation is one that is catching on, said Bob Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents.  

Last week, Royalton-Hartland Central and Barker Central schools in Niagara County announced a one-year shared-superintendent trial. That will expand on the special-education program, business teacher, wrestling team and football program the districts already share.

The Penn Yan, Dundee and Marcus Whitman school districts in the Finger Lakes region held a joint meeting in December to discuss similar sharing, but no decisions were made.

Lowry says such innovations can work on other parts of the state and save money, but many factors are involved.

“The North Country is different because you have (some) examples of districts that are property-rich with second homes more so than other parts of the state,” he said.

“In the Southern Tier, they are nearly all poorer districts than in the North Country — but then the districts in the North Country are a bit larger in square miles compared to other parts of the state.”


Westport Central School District watches its administrative pennies in another way.

Dr. John Gallagher is a part-time superintendent.

“I started five years ago,” he said. “That’s part of the way we save money. Because I’m ‘retired,’ that means I don’t have to have some of the benefits that other superintendents require.”

He trimmed $2,000 off of his salary line for next year and has been meeting regularly with superintendents at Elizabethtown-Lewis, Keene and Willsboro central schools to source other opportunities.

The decision to lead school districts toward shared services is driven in large part by the administrators.

“Everything is on the table,” Gallagher said. “Sports, cafeteria, transportation. We’re looking at everything.”


But it takes time and a common focus for superintendents to work out details of common need.

Recent headway is thwarted, in some cases, by unfunded mandates from the State Education Department in terms of testing and evaluations, which add many hours to an administrator’s workload.

“It takes so much time to do what the state has done with Race to the Top and APPR (Annual Professional Performance Review) for teachers,” Gallagher said.

“We’ve told State Ed, OK, we can consolidate superintendents, and that job (APPR) won’t get done — it takes about 10 hours per teacher for the evaluation process.”

Gallagher said he has written repeatedly to State Education Commissioner John King, seeking resolution to the time and fiscal constraints of state testing alongside new Performance Review measures.

“But he has never responded,” he said.


School boards faced with affording teachers and attracting a superintendent are making difficult choices, Lowry said, because they “can’t afford to be without a superintendent.”

Districts have cut programs before personnel, but after years of such practices, few options are left but to eliminate staff.

“There are two ways to reduce personnel costs: employ fewer people or spend less per employee,” he said.

And school boards are doing both.

Gerald Blair, Northeastern Clinton Central School’s interim superintendent, says they chose to institute a furlough system for certain administrative positions in the coming year. 

Employees will “take anywhere from three days to six days off unpaid through the year,” he said. “I took 40 furlough days. And I’ll work probably 20 of those (unpaid). The reason I did this was to try to set a tone for everybody else.

“I didn’t expect anybody to take 40 days. That (total cost savings) came up to about $40,000 when we put it all in the pot.”

And $40,000 is about one job saved.

“I think next year is going to be as hard as this year,” Blair said of the fiscal situation.

But he has begun planning next year’s strategy — they are looking for ways to share resources with neighboring Chazy Central Rural School. 

“We’ve been asking, could we share a teacher? Could we share a head of transportation?”


And many superintendents are doing what they can by declining raises or freezing their salary.

Among them have been Ticonderoga Central School Superintendent John McDonald, whose pay, $131,000, was the same for the 2009-10, 2010-11 and 2011-12 school years according to See Through NY; and Saranac Central’s top administrator, Kenneth Cringle, whose annual $114,174 didn’t change for those three years either.

Dale Breault Jr., superintendent at Chateaugay Central School, was paid $109,242 both in 2010-11 and 2011-12, and Beekmantown Central’s Scott Amo didn’t see a raise those years, either; his pay was $165,407.

A 2012-13 survey by the Council of School Superintendents found that 45 percent of the state’s school superintendents accepted salary freezes, compared to 35 percent of teachers’ unions. 

And 79 percent of superintendents reported they had done that at least once in the past three years.

“The state average superintendent salary has been about flat for three years,” Lowry said. “Our sense is superintendents, on average, are taking smaller raises and freezing their pay.

“And when a school board (that is) looking for a new superintendent hires someone, they’re paying less than they were a few years ago.” 


St. Regis Falls and Brushton-Moira made the move to share a superintendent in the 2011-12 school year, hiring interim St. Regis Falls Superintendent Beverly Ouderkirk and giving the school boards time to find a permanent person.

Her contract was extended into the 2012-13 school year and beyond until February, when Andre was hired.

The contract requires a 60-day notice for one district to opt out of the agreement and leaves the superintendent working for the district that does not drop out.

Andre estimates she is working 70 hours a week.

“Coming into this new, the workload is extensive,” she said. “It’s a huge learning curve. But I’m thinking once the budget goes through, it will change to more normal working hours.”

Andre said they are not trimming from administrative staff at either school this year.

“Last year, a middle-level principal was cut at Brushton-Moira,” she said.

Some teachers are leaving this year through retirement at Brushton-Moira, but the positions will be filled from within.

“I think any administrator in the North Country would tell you, these are the most challenging times we’ve ever seen in education,” Andre said.