North country schools are in financial trouble. Superintendents in half of the 32 districts in Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties expect their districts to be insolvent in five years.
For some districts, it could be sooner, perhaps as few as two years, according to a survey by the state Council of School Superintendents.
School officials have been forced to cope with declining state aid revenue that comprises a significant part of Northern New York school funding.
To balance steadily rising budgets while operating within the restrictions of the states property tax limits, districts have slashed programs, reduced personnel and dipped into their fund balances.
But reserves are rapidly being depleted. Staff levels have reached a critical point. Further cuts in personnel or programs will leave some districts unable to provide their students a basic education meeting state requirements.
Morristown officials say that could come as soon as next year for them, although they could still pay bills for the next five years.
Districts are taking radical steps. Lisbon is following the example of the Newcomb School District, by recruiting tuition-paying foreign students, but the stop-gap measure is not likely to see any financial benefits for years.
Such measures, however,fail to address the underlying problems many districts have with declining enrollments and smaller class sizes.
Enrollment in St. Lawrence County schools has dropped from 26,000 to 16,000 students. While basic educational programs continue, students in small schools miss out on advanced courses and electives too costly to justify for so few students.
School officials are waiting to see what happens with state aid in the next year. However, more revenue is only part of the solution. Morristown, Heuvelton and Hermon-DeKalb are talking about forming a regional high school, which New York doesnt allow now. The Legislature needs to enact legislation now to permit them.
However, districts must also look at alternatives such as mergers or consolidation, which could involve the loss of identity.
School boards, parents and taxpayers have to be open to all the possibilities, if they do not want to see their children lose out on educational opportunities.